Show me the thought-out plan

July 23, 2004

Throwing money at academia doesn't guarantee equity or the survival of struggling subjects, says Ian Gibson

This year's spending review has created an environment of excitement and promise, much of it generated by the long-awaited ten-year investment framework for science. But while the prospect of the extra millions of pounds is inevitably dazzling, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the future.

There has been no indication yet of how the education budget will be broken down. Having committed itself to getting 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education by 2010 and fully funding these extra places, the Government may find itself stretched, to say the least.

The target is likely to be surpassed; how many of these extra places will be occupied by students from non-traditional backgrounds will be a more important consideration. Getting such students into higher education should be an ongoing process, not subject to arbitrarily set targets.

Faced with having to deliver the promises made to push top-up fees through Parliament, the Department for Education and Skills will no doubt be working overtime to see how this can be done. Extra resources, as the spending review points out, will come from variable tuition fees. I can't help feeling that this is a subtle reminder of the way things are heading.

While the Government promises to "maintain" per-student spending levels in real terms, universities will become increasingly dependent on tuition fees to fund their inevitable expansion. Prepare yourselves for a rerun of the debate when they demand the cap on fees be raised after the next Parliament.

The closure of struggling university departments has also featured a great deal in debate. The announcement in the science investment framework that universities will have to give a year's notice before they can close down is to be favoured. Intervention is needed to prevent harmful gaps occurring in the system. But I am not convinced that this strategy is anything more than an empty gesture. In such cases, the Higher Education Funding Council for England will consider whether to provide extra funding to departments if loss of provision in the region is considered detrimental to the economy.

While I am pleased to see extra support for science departments, the problem affects all minority subjects. It concerns me that only those subjects deemed by Hefce to be beneficial to the economy will be rescued.

We need to consider, too, how such departments can be revived, not simply kept afloat. For instance, what role can the regional development agencies play in this and what should the universities themselves be doing to prevent closures? Also, will departments in certain institutions receive greater support than others due to, say, the university's research profile or reputation?

We need to remember that the future development of our universities is likely to become more uneven as they are left increasingly to the command of market forces.

Without wanting to knock the extra funding for science and the prominence it is finally gaining on the political agenda, there is still very little clarity over how the science spend is going to be prioritised.

There is likely to be a battle between how much cash is injected into the research infrastructure and how much into responsive mode research. It is important to get the balance right. But if research funding is to be concentrated further in higher education institutions, then new ideas and collaboration are likely to suffer.

All in all, how the different funding streams are going to determine the development of universities in the next five to ten years remains extremely vague. The Government has responded to growing shortages in the system but has failed to come up with any clear directives for change. It is responding to an increasingly competitive international climate as it must, but in doing so may exacerbate rather than redress the inequalities within its own higher education system.

Ian Gibson MP is chair of the House of Commons science and technology committee.

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