REF postponed while Willetts waits for impact 'consensus'

Minister yet to be convinced by measure as Labour attacks coalition cuts. Simon Baker reports

July 8, 2010

The government is to delay the research excellence framework by a year to see whether consensus emerges in the sector over plans to measure the social and economic "impact" of academics' work.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said this week that he had yet to be convinced by the efficacy of the impact measure.

The announcement came as his predecessor, David Lammy, claimed that university funding cuts under a Labour government would have been "very different" from the 25 per cent retrenchment now faced by the academy.

The first REF, which will replace the research assessment exercise as the means of distributing £1.5 billion in annual quality-related funding in England, was due to complete in 2013, with up to a quarter of departmental scores based on impact.

Mr Willetts, who is due to announce the delay in a speech on 9 July in London, told Times Higher Education that the new time frame was reasonable given the "lively dispute" on the issue.

He said that he wanted the Higher Education Funding Council for England to "establish whether there is a measure of impact that is methodologically sound and that commands the assent of the academic community". He added: "I don't believe those criteria have been met yet, but a year will give Hefce and the academic community longer to see if a consensus view emerges."

Mr Willetts said a final decision on impact could now be taken after the government's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) and the conclusion of Lord Browne of Madingley's independent review of higher education funding and student finance this autumn.

Fears over the impact of the CSR on higher education have grown after it emerged that government departments are preparing models for 40 per cent cuts - far higher than the 25 per cent average laid out in Chancellor George Osborne's emergency Budget last month.

The sector was already reeling from an Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis suggesting that the academy could face 33 per cent cuts due to smaller-than-average reductions in the schools and defence budgets.

According to new University and College Union figures, job losses in the sector would total 22,500 - 10,200 of them academic posts - if a 25 per cent cut were made to the sector's budget.

Lammy takes the offensive

Mr Lammy, the Labour shadow minister for higher education, told THE that a Labour government would have had a "very different value to play with" given its plans for the deficit.

"I think we would have come to a very strong conclusion that higher education, and research particularly, is a key driver of growth," he said.

Defending the cuts made to the sector during the final year of the Labour administration, he added: "When we said 'our fair share but no more', we meant it. We have heard no such words from David Willetts."

He said Lord Browne's review would now be used by the coalition "to plug a gap" in funding rather than to extend "the reach of higher education" and "ensure a world-class future".

However, Mr Willetts said that Mr Lammy's claims on cuts were "a bit rich".

"Given (Labour) left behind a fiscal disaster and unspecified cuts totalling hundreds of millions for us to sort out, I don't think I need any particular advice from David Lammy," he said.

Private concerns, public 'bribes'?

Meanwhile, Mr Lammy added that he would "scrutinise heavily" any move to allow private companies a greater role in the academy - a move he warned would involve using public money as a "bribe".

"What we have to ensure is that we don't get a 'two-tierism' where you allow some universities to go to the wall and effectively say to the private sector: 'Come in and take those universities over,'" he said.

Mr Lammy also praised a recent speech by Labour leadership candidate David Miliband, who said that he wanted 60 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds to participate in higher education.

However, Mr Miliband said that graduates would need to "contribute more" to their education, although he expressed no preference for a student-finance model.

"It is right that graduates pay back through the taxation system and it is right that we invest that (money) in higher education so it is able to fund itself properly, but I don't think that now is the time to speculate on the particular brand of taxation," he told THE.

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