Spending plans welcome, but pay still an issue

July 19, 2002

In a week of collapsing stock markets in London and New York, chancellor Gordon Brown is starting the expansion of public spending he has always wanted in a climate far more uncertain than the expansionary mood of most of the era since Labour's 1997 election victory. So a spending review in which he repeats his belief that knowledge and education are the key to economic success is to be applauded. Despite Mr Brown's claims that his spending plans are affordable, they still involve an increase in public spending at a time of economic doubt. Anything that makes it hard for him to change his mind later is welcome.

The spending review also marks out education as the government's biggest target, and incidentally proves that secretary of state Estelle Morris is no mere imitation of her predecessor David Blunkett. She has definitively outgunned her former boss in the struggle for more cash at the very time that his political troubles at the Home Office are mounting.

There are also signs that the government is listening to the academic community's priorities, especially its decision to implement the Roberts report on poor pay for researchers at the start of their careers. But this long-overdue move will not solve the problem of low academic salaries in general. The equal-pay bill itemised in the Bett report of 1999 remains unpaid.

Mr Brown's enthusiasm for research as a driver of the economy means unprecedented scope for academic science, which will soon be better resourced than at any time in its history thanks to the spending review and the resources of the Wellcome Trust. But Mr Brown shows no sign of appreciating that people, not inventions, are the key ingredient. There is no emphasis on subjects outside science and technology and too little about the importance of teaching. Nor is there enough about embedding research as a priority in the rest of the government. This week's Royal Society report on the foot-and-mouth epidemic shows that science was a key weakness of the official response - but even today, few government departments have ambitious research programmes of their own.

The lack of detail for universities in this week's review means that attention now turns to the autumn's other highlight document, the white paper (in all but name) on higher education. The white paper will also include details of the government's plans for student support. The government's ability to meet its participation targets depends crucially on getting this right, but it also has to consider the costs of tuition, from the point of view of both students and universities.

The head of steam behind differential fees can be headed off only by a government that is willing to find some other significant source of university funding. There is little sign that the present administration has the will to lay out the cash. This week's 3.5 per cent pay offer may be ahead of inflation but is nowhere near enough to close the gap between academics and other key professionals.

The supporters of higher fees are bound to think that their case gains strength from the government's something-for-something mantra of no more money without reform. For higher education this is likely to mean targets for access and other performance measures.

A recognition that universities are not a state industry and work best with the least central control ought to form a key part of the white paper and would chime with the imminent findings of the Better Regulation Task Force. The government is entitled to ask for accountability but universities are within their rights to insist that there is a role for trust as well.

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