'Old boys' hold on to research funding

January 1, 1999

United Kingdom research councils spent less than 5 per cent of their higher education budgets in former polytechnics and colleges of higher education last year. The rest went to old universities.

Several of the councils, which represent one arm of the dual-support system that funds university research, gave less than 1 per cent of their higher education research grants to new universities.

Labour MP Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish) this week attacked the imbalance: "The figures suggest the old boys have got the money and are determined to keep it," he said. "I have had a number of representations from new universities about this. The figures suggest it is worse than people thought. I accept that in some areas there are strong arguments for old universities to keep the money, but in lots of areas I think it is unlikely all the expertise is in the old institutions."

An answer to a parliamentary question put by Mr Bennett revealed the extent of the discrepancy. In 1997-98, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council spent 0.76 per cent of its higher education expenditure on research grants in former polytechnics and colleges of higher education. The remaining 99.24 per cent went to researchers in old universities.

Figures for the other research councils are similar. The Medical Research Council spent 0.08 per cent of its higher education institutes' research expenditure in former polytechnics and colleges of higher education; the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council 1. per cent; the Natural Environment Research Council 0.81 per cent; the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council 3.9 per cent; and the Economic and Social Science Research Council 4.9 per cent.

Geoffrey Copland, chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities and vice-chancellor of Westminster University, said the figures were "disappointing, but not surprising". He added that the vast majority of funding council money also went into the pre-1992 universities. "If you are to bid for research council money, you need to come from a strong base. The dual-support system tends to reinforce the existing system."

He said new universities were making headway in the research assessment exercise and in winning money through applied research. He said the level of MRC funding reflected the fact that there were no medical schools in new universities.

Ian Halliday, chief executive of PPARC, said he was surprised the figures were so low. Very few new universities did astronomy and particle physics research, he said, but these tended to be good departments winning their share of research council money.

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