Rally round the ring fence - the budget battle is not over

Sector prepares to repel raids on research budgets as spending review looms. Paul Jump writes

May 3, 2012

Credit: Science Photo Library
Ever-decreasing circles: as the UK falls back into recession, strong arguments for research will be needed to protect future funding

Lobbyists and funding bodies are scrambling to prepare the strongest and most persuasive case ever in support of higher education and research funding amid suggestions that it could be under threat in the next spending review.

As an outcome of the previous spending review two years ago, research spending is theoretically ring-fenced and protected in cash terms until the end of 2014-15.

The next spending review is expected in 2014, but many commentators are predicting that it will be brought forward to next year. Such a move could see budgets for 2014-15 revised downwards.

Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE and a former special adviser to John Denham in his time as a Labour secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills, said it made more political sense for the government to postpone the spending review until after the next general election.

This would avoid the coalition parties having to run on another austerity ticket, he argued.

But Mr Westwood said that concerns about threats to the research budget did not seem misplaced in light of last week's confirmation that the UK was back in recession. "The Treasury's own forecasts predict 3.6 per cent less public spending in each of the first two years of the next spending period [2015-16 and 2016-17].

"This suggests the next review will be just as tough as, if not tougher than, the last one. The easy assumption that higher education has gone through its reform and financial pain might be both complacent and unrealistic," he said.

The Treasury is understood also to be concerned about cost overruns on the student loan book because of lower-than-expected wage rises and last week's decision by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to lower the grade threshold above which student intake controls are removed.

One source in the research sector said that the Treasury and competing interests within BIS and other government departments were questioning why the research budget should be protected against possible overspends elsewhere in the higher education budget.

As Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, put it at the council's annual conference last month, other parts of the public sector regard higher education as "pretty well-heeled".

But government insiders are understood to reject suggestions that the research budget and ring fence could be under pressure, regarding that as scaremongering and stressing that no decisions have been made.

Stories that emerged after the 2010 spending review suggested that the decision to protect the research budget in cash terms was taken just days before the announcement, when extra funds were found. For this reason, observers fear that even stronger arguments for research spending will be required to secure a similar outcome next time.

Sir Alan said in his Hefce conference speech that to avoid cuts higher education needed to emphasise its importance for economic growth and "the subtle but powerful interplay of learning and teaching, research and knowledge exchange".

Hefce's hand could also be strengthened by the impact case studies required by the research excellence framework, which must be submitted by next summer.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former director of policy at Hefce, said it was not uncommon to hear predictions of doom in the "game" that precedes a spending review.

He added that a reduction in the research budget would have greatest effect on research-intensive universities, which had been "reasonably protected" so far.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of large, research-intensive universities, said that any more cuts would make it "really difficult to sustain world-class research environments", which were "one of the surest paths to sustainable economic growth".

Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said that the 2010 spending review had already imposed large capital cuts on the science base, and even a further budget freeze would be "disastrous" at a time when other countries were increasing their science spending.

"We have to make sure we're in a better position than in 2010," he said.


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