Plea to minister: don't desert us as credit crunch bites

As the Government publishes the reviews it commissioned on how to maintain a world-class higher education system, we present key findings on the major themes

November 13, 2008

PART-TIME STUDENTS

Universities that do the most to reach out to part-time and non-traditional students are risking their reputations and financial stability, says the report on part-time study.

This prevents progress towards a more flexible higher education system, according to the report written by Christine King, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University.

In the report, she says some institutions are "pursuing an affirmative social inclusion agenda" by increasing learning opportunities for those with no previous experience (of higher education) or with low aspirations.

"They are also taking on the extra costs associated with 'non-traditional' learners and the additional costs of flexible ... bespoke curriculum delivery," Professor King says.

Universities seeking to engage with employers by running part-time courses for workers also take a financial risk. "Company training budgets are often the first to be cut in a financial downturn, and such volatility can in turn lead to financial instability for provider organisations," she says.

"The (Government's) ambition to increase the number of higher education qualifications that are co-funded by employers does not remove the risk of financial stability, and the extent of demand remains uncertain," her report says.

Professor King warns the Government not to replace mainstream teaching funding with employer co-funding in its drive to expand higher education. "Nor should (co-funding) be used to reduce the unit of resource," she says.

Distinguishing between full- and part-timers in the financial support of students by the state is "increasingly indefensible", the vice-chancellor says.

She cites a briefing paper from Birkbeck, University of London, that accuses the Government of making "erroneous assumptions" about part-time students' ability to afford to study and levels of employer assistance.

Professor King calls for a consultation on a national application system that better serves all potential learners. She also wants the Higher Education Funding Council for England to develop a mechanism to facilitate growth in flexible learning. In addition, she says, funding by credit should be evaluated.

- Melanie Newman

DEMOGRAPHIC CHANGE

Vice-chancellors have told the Government that inadequate funding remains the biggest threat to the future success of UK universities.

Alongside money, an obsession with the "economic utility" of universities and a blurring of lines between universities and other higher education providers are named as the sector's key concerns.

They are listed in a report by Universities UK for the Government on how the sector may develop over the next 15 years.

Warning that these threats could encourage institutions to focus on "activities at the margins of their fundamental mission", it says: "Above all, it is not realistic to expect universities to hold their position in the front rank internationally while funded at approximately one third of US levels.

"We urge policymakers not to give up as the economic going gets tough."

The warning comes after David Eastwood, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), told university heads at Hefce's annual conference that he thought it was "inconceivable" in the current economic climate that the current £3,000 annual cap on student tuition fees would be lifted before 2013.

The UUK report also says it is a "pressing challenge" to ensure that earmarked funding for specific initiatives, such as widening participation and third-stream activities, does not hinder universities from pursuing their own agenda.

It says universities must put the interests of students ahead of all other interests, and it points to a "substantial backlog" of investment in teaching infrastructure.

"We look to the Government for a commitment to maintain the level of public investment in undergraduate teaching so that, in England, additional fee income really means additional resources for universities to support teaching," the report adds.

Changing student expectations will require more investment in staff development, it says, and recruiting academics will become harder.

Part-time students should be given greater consideration, with those excluded from financial support from the state brought into the fold.

The demographic downturn from 2012 could be a natural opportunity for a "rebalancing of the system", it suggests.

Above all, the report says, "universities should be better and more sustainably funded in the next 15 years than they have been in the last 15 years".

- John Gill

WORKING WITH GOVERNMENT

Academics who provide the Government with high-quality policy advice should be better rewarded - and this includes recognition in the system being set up to replace the research assessment exercise (RAE).

This is the message from the report prepared by the Council for Science and Technology (CST).

It concludes that although "wholesale change is not required", better engagement is being inhibited by "less-than-professional working relationships", "ignorance on both sides of what good engagement can deliver", "a degree of mistrust" and a "failure to value the relationship".

Speaking to Times Higher Education, CST co-chair Janet Finch said there was "considerable enthusiasm" on the part of both academia and the Government to develop more extensive and productive working relationships.

But, she said, some academics were seen by policymakers as being "too slow" or "not really undertaking" the task that officials had set. Likewise, some policymakers gave "no feedback" on whether academics' work had been "useful or used".

The report makes a number of recommendations, including peer review of academics' policy papers as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which will replace the RAE in allocating more than £1.4 billion of funding annually.

"Such papers could be included within the RAE/REF ... with the overall rating of the paper based on both its academic and policy value," the report says.

It suggests that the Government and the sector should set up "peer-review bodies" capable of assessing both the academic quality of a paper and its relevance and impact on policymaking.

"We did not see it as our job to design the REF, but there are discussions taking place about the greater inclusion of applied work ... It would be important to include policy work for government as potentially part of that," Professor Finch said.

- Zoe Corbyn

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY

Universities should be required to declare annually how they will maximise the social and economic impact of their research, according to a review of the management of academics' intellectual property.

In his report, Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, says the Higher Education Funding Council for England should have each university file an annual report detailing their successes and failures in exploiting intellectual property (IP) and setting out their future intentions.

It suggests that universities monitor use of their IP to ensure that income is not lost to academics' private consultancy work and that they review IP policy. Staff should be offered incentives to make the most of their IP, it says.

"UK universities have relatively well-developed policies ... but some may need reinforcing if the UK is to remain competitive and increase returns from investment in public research," the report says.

Professor Wellings emphasises the importance of UK graduate schools in capturing IP, claiming that investment in graduate researchers is essential to capture additional income for the sector. The report says: "The existing high levels of aggregation of PhD student numbers and the distribution of high-quality infrastructure and supervisory capacity to assist these students suggest that the allocation of additional targeted resources might strengthen the university sector in the UK and assist with translational research and the transfer of IP to UK industry."

But Michael Blakeney, professor of intellectual property law at Queen Mary, University of London, said he was sceptical about research impact being measured by yardsticks linked to financial return. "What this is really about is how the Government can spread its rather limited research funds between universities," he claimed.

- Hannah Fearn

RESEARCH CAREERS

Initiatives to improve research careers in the UK need "stitching together and supplementing" to create a coherent policy that covers all career stages.

This is the message from a review of research careers prepared by Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, for John Denham, the Universities Secretary.

The review says the "brain drain" of promising and elite researchers from the UK continues to be a "clear and present danger", but that the current system is working "reasonably well".

It outlines a number of recommendations to the Government, the research councils and universities themselves to plug gaps in the drive to make research careers more attractive.

It says universities should consider whether they could do more to encourage researchers to move more often and more easily between academia and industry and that the Government should work on how to develop a "more sophisticated long-term understanding" of the supply and demand for researchers across all sectors and disciplines.

However, researchers expecting the review to recommend more pay - an area on which Mr Denham requested specific advice - will be sorely disappointed.

"The drivers for those undertaking postgraduate research are not generally monetary, and so incentives focused only on financial reward are likely to be of limited value," it says.

- Zoe Corbyn

ROUND-UP

Funding universities according to their success at producing employable graduates has been mooted in a review of institutional performance measures. The Higher Education Funding Council for England proposes it as one of a "basket of measures" underpinning incentive funding. It also suggests developing "value-added" measures to give a clearer picture of an institution's impact on its students and the economy.

Universities should broaden their view of internationalisation, according to Sir Drummond Bone, former vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool. His report calls for the focus on overseas student recruitment to be replaced by wider-reaching partnerships. He says financial incentives and streamlined visa procedures would encourage staff and students to go abroad.

Research data in the UK is a "significant national asset" but is not always well managed, says the report on online innovation. Sir Ron Cooke, chairman of the board of the Joint Information Systems Committee, warns that failure to protect and exploit research data will reduce the UK's international standing and hinder research.

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