Now that's research impact: 'paradigm-shifting' Browne drew on a single opinion survey

January 6, 2011

The review that sparked the government's transformation of higher education in England spent the "astonishingly low" sum of £68,000 on research - with nearly all of that going on an unpublished opinion survey of students and parents.

Critics of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, led by former BP chief executive Lord Browne of Madingley, said the research commissioned was inadequate for a study with such wide-ranging implications for higher education.

Figures obtained by Times Higher Education under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Browne Review spent £68,375 on research, from a total spend of £120,000.

Recommendations made by the review and accepted by the government include ending the undergraduate teaching grant for arts, humanities and social science subjects.

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which commissioned the review, said the "vast bulk" of the research spending was on an opinion survey of students and parents about aspects such as differing levels of fees and maintenance grants. The research was carried out by the firm Opinion Leader.

A "smaller amount" was spent on "basic data" from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the spokesman added.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has said that the Browne report is "up there with Lionel Robbins' report of 1963 and Ron Dearing's report of 1997 as a serious, paradigm-shifting publication".

However, Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, said the level of research spending confirmed his view of its "superficiality".

"Here is a report that creates the most radical changes in the funding of student education there has ever been, and it's based on £68,000 of research, most of which was spent on an opinion survey," he said.

Professor Brown argued that additional research should have been commissioned to look at "countries where prices are liberalised, such as America and to some extent Australia".

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the level of expenditure, "particularly on research, is astonishingly low for a report of this magnitude and importance".

He said the market research should have been published to "lend confidence to the conclusions that were reached about the likely responses of students, their advisers and universities".

Hepi raised concerns about the review's calculations on likely levels of loan repayments. Mr Bekhradnia said it "would have been much wiser to commission independent research to validate these".

Figures released to THE also show that only one of the review's seven members was awarded payment for loss of earnings. Diane Coyle, head of the Enlightenment Economics consultancy and a BBC trust member, was paid £7,500.

Spending on expenses for review members was £2,208.82, split between three individuals.

Lord Browne claimed £414.38 for travel; Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston University, claimed £303.50 for travel; and Rajay Naik, who took up a job as senior policy adviser at The Open University during the review, claimed £1,342.65 for travel, £100.41 for accommodation and £47.88 for subsistence.

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