Securing real-terms protection of the science budget in the next spending period will require a “Herculean” lobbying effort, the chief executive of Universities UK has said.
Nicola Dandridge told The Future of Impact, a conference held in London on 10 April, that the UK’s economic outlook in the short, medium and long term was “quite frankly grim”, and that the spending review to be held after the 2015 general election was likely to be “even tougher” than the coalition government’s 2010 review.
That review protected the science budget in cash terms but slashed capital spending in the sector by more than 40 per cent.
Ms Dandridge said that post-election, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills would probably be hit with further cuts over and above the estimated reduction of between 4 and 8 per cent likely to be imposed in the interim spending review for 2015-16, scheduled for June.
She said that UUK had been given no assurances by any of the political parties that they would protect university or science spending, even though their value was recognised.
“In our discussions with the Treasury it has been made abundantly clear that government absolutely understands the importance of universities to society and the economy, [so] there is no need for us to reiterate that,” she said.
“But, they tell us, the problem is that there is simply no money…So making the case for continued investment in science, even real-terms protection [of the current budget], is going to require a Herculean effort, and the most focused case to be made for the sector.”
She added that the implications of the economic situation for university budgets were “far more significant than is often recognised”, pointing out that the back-loading of cuts in the current spending period - which runs from the 2011-12 financial year to 2014-15 - meant that only about 20 per cent had been implemented by this year.
She said that there was “absolutely no doubt the strong case made for the social and economic importance of the research base played a crucial role” in securing the current flat cash science budget.
Most people believed this was a “good outcome in the [economic] circumstances”, even though it amounted to a 14 per cent real-terms drop by 2015, she added.
Ms Dandridge said that the rise of the impact agenda in research had coincided with the “repositioning” of universities from being, according to the caricature, “somewhat remote and scholarly” institutions to bodies “at the heart of the knowledge economy” following the sharp expansion in student numbers during the past decade.
But the financial situation had led impact to attain a particular “resonance” with policymakers, and the impact case studies that universities were preparing for the 2014 research excellence framework would undoubtedly constitute a “critical part” of the case UUK would make for investment in science and higher education in 2015.