Ministers fail to halt war of words over dual support

November 28, 2003

Leading academics this week pledged to keep fighting for a fundamental rethink of university research funding, despite an attempt by the government to draw a line under the debate, writes Anna Fazackerley.

In a joint letter to all heads of higher education institutions in England this week, minister for higher education Alan Johnson and science minister Lord Sainsbury underline the government's commitment to the dual-support system, under which university research is funded through two key strands - one from the funding council for infrastructure and one from research councils for specific proposals.

The letter announces the government's decision to create a new research forum to encourage debate about key issues.

But it begins with an assertion that both ministers remain convinced that the system is the most effective way to fund university research.

The Royal Society, which recently issued a statement calling for the system to be scrapped, has confirmed that it will not back down from its position.

The society's president, Lord May, said: "This system is not the 11th commandment that Moses dropped on the way down from Mount Sinai."

Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chair of the Coalition of Modern Universities, said the letter was intended to silence discussion on the future of the dual-support system and to scotch any hopes of a change of tack from the government.

He told The THES : "The cat is out of the bag, and I don't think this announcement will in any way discourage people from questioning the current system. It certainly won't stop me."

The only concession the ministers made on dual support was to say that universities could have another year to implement the changes recommended by the Office of Science and Technology consultation on this topic, which endorsed the dual-support system but accepted that there were inefficiencies.

Universities have until September 2005 to put in place the mechanisms to calculate and recover the full economic costs of the research they undertake as demanded by the OST.

The letter also says that the government will make a definite statement on the way forward for higher education research in the new year.

The new research forum, which will be chaired by Sir Graeme Davies, vice-chancellor of the University of London, will contain representatives from across the sector. It will act as a sounding board for the ministerial group working on the government's investing in innovation strategy.

It will also provide a focus for further debate on the relationship between teaching and research, and will discuss ways of improving collaboration on research between institutions.

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