Task force accused of failing to respond to funding woes

Scottish governing bodies say report ignores their views on long-term problems, reports Olga Wojtas

December 4, 2008

The chairs of Scotland's university governing bodies have criticised the task force report on the future of higher education north of the border for failing to tackle long-term funding problems.

The report, published last month, was agreed by the Scottish Government, the Scottish Funding Council and Universities Scotland. But the chairs, whose governing role includes responsibility for financial sustainability, have accused the task force of ignoring their views.

A key plank of the report is the streamlining of resources into a General Fund (GFU) for mainstream teaching and research, and a Horizon Fund (HFU) for initiatives tied in with government strategies.

The chairs say they are not opposed to the principle of the HFU, but sought assurances that there will be new money for this, avoiding any erosion of core funding levels. They say they are "both surprised and concerned" to find that £122 million of the sector's total £1,087 million is being earmarked for the new fund.

Their submission to the task force warns against universities being subjected to "diversionary 'initiativitis'" and says that the number of special projects should be strictly limited. They argue that the HFU should be relatively small, and that the GFU must cover the full cost of publicly funded core activities, set at a level comparable to the rest of the UK.

"The chairs believe that in the current difficult economic conditions, the priority should be to underpin one of Scotland's most valuable sectors and ensure its competitiveness, not just with England but also internationally," the chairs say in a joint response to the task force last week.

The University and College Union (UCU) Scotland said the task force's final report made a mockery of the six-month consultation period, since only one minor change was made.

Terry Brotherstone, UCU Scotland president, said the HFU was dominated by "the unimaginative current agenda" of core skills, business interference and short-term skills gaps.

"What goes on in universities cannot offer government quick fixes, but not to nurture our universities can contribute mightily to medium-term national and social decline," Mr Brotherstone said.

"They require stable funding and strategic planning. Instead we are offered tinkering and rebranding of funding streams but no commitment to invest in the most important sector for Scotland's economic and social viability."



Anna Dominiczak, head of cardiovascular and medical science at the University of Glasgow, has warned that star researchers are "so frightened" by the prospect of a separate Scottish Medical Research Council that there would be a huge exodus if it was established.

Professor Dominiczak has called on the Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution "to reassure the universities and our top researchers as soon as possible" that they will continue to have access to UK-wide funding streams, including the research councils and major charities such as the Wellcome Trust and the British Heart Foundation.

She accused the Scottish Funding Council of failing to acknowledge adequately that up to 90 per cent of research funding for Scotland's two major killers, cancer and cardiovascular disease, is led by charities.

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