Spending 'vital' for UK status

September 14, 2007

President of Universities UK wants funding for teaching doubled and red tape reduced to help higher education sector compete internationally. Tony Tysome reports

UK universities will struggle to maintain their position in the international pecking order unless the Treasury comes up with more money in its forthcoming spending review, Rick Trainor, Universities UK's new president, said this week.

Professor Trainor, principal of King's College London, also called for a blitz on bureaucracy, which continues to drain resources by eating into the time of academics and managers. His remarks coincided with the publication this week of a report on red tape.

Speaking ahead of this week's UUK residential meeting at Leicester University, Professor Trainor said higher education in the UK would face "real difficulties" holding its own in the increasingly competitive global market unless vice-chancellors could convince the Treasury to increase funding over the three years (2008-09 to 2010-11) covered by this autumn's spending review.

The growing importance of international competitiveness left no room for complacency on either of these issues, Professor Trainor said.

"To talk about the importance of globalisation may seem like a cliché, but it is a cliché that has real teeth," he said.

"The resources issue is closely linked to that of international competitiveness. That means that unless we see a rising level of resources, then the sector will be in real difficulties."

As what is expected to be a tight Comprehensive Spending Review approaches, Professor Trainor suggested it was particularly vital to avoid returning to a real-terms decline in the unit of resource for teaching - a trend halted by the Labour Government three years after it came to power.

In its submission to the review, UUK has called for recurrent spending on teaching to almost double from £215 million next year to £425 million by 2010-11, while pressing for funding for teaching capital and research to be maintained with an increase to cover inflation in the same period.

Professor Trainor explained: "With the rising expectations of students, parents and employers, if anything, we need to be putting more money into teacher-per-student [ratios]."

Professor Trainor's plea for a fresh purge on red tape echoes the conclusions of a report from the Higher Education Regulation Review Group, released at the UUK conference today.

Steve Bundred, chief executive of the Audit Commission and chair of the regulation review group, told The Times Higher he would be calling for a review to be led by ministers on the regulatory role played in higher education by professional bodies and sector skills councils, which he said had become confusing and burdensome.

He said: "We have received representations that in the actual exercise of their regulatory function some professional bodies are excessively prescriptive and inflexible, and there is occasional overlap and conflict between their regulatory role and that of statutory regulators."

Mr Bundred and Professor Trainor both said they recognised that the professional bodies had a legitimate and important regulatory role to play.

But Professor Trainor said their requirements were becoming "more onerous" and were "impinging not only on the time of managers but also of academics".

He added: "While we who run universities need to be careful not to impose an unnecessary administrative burden on our colleagues, this is easier for us to do if the regulatory burden on universities themselves is reduced. A lot of the paperwork we inflict on colleagues has been generated by external bodies."

His comments were welcomed by Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, who said her union's research had found that red tape and over-regulation from outside bodies were key causes of stress for academics.

"We welcome any recommendations that will allow staff to do what they are best at - getting on with their jobs," she said.

The more money that is wasted on dealing with red tape, she said, the less there will be available in the next pay round. Unsurprisingly, vice chancellors are anxious to avoid another dispute.

Employers have begun talks on plans to set up new negotiating machinery, but Professor Trainor emphasises that this will be of little help unless the Government recognises the simple fact that "the ability of universities to provide pay for their employees depends on the level of their income".

Another area that needs to be properly resourced if universities are to help the Government meet its economic goals is higher education's role in the Leitch agenda and collaboration between the sector and employers, Professor Trainor said.

The UUK was attempting to play its part by entering into a formal dialogue with the Confederation of British Industry over what employers wanted and their employees needed and the kind of education and training that universities were best equipped to offer, Professor Trainor said.

With all these calls on resources, it might be tempting for some universities to pin their hopes for better funding on the review of top-up fees in 2009. And Professor Trainor suggested that the sector was likely to end up less divided over a further increase in fees than some had predicted.

"When I think about the debate that went on before the introduction of fees, there was a lot more consensus towards the end than in the early stages. I think there is a fair chance that the same will happen again," he said.

Banking on higher variable fees would be unwise, since the decision would be out of vice-chancellors' hands, he said.

"It is very much a political question, and not one that we will settle," he said.

tony.tysome@thes.co.uk

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