UK research spending promise ‘not a done deal’

Downing Street may be forced to break manifesto pledge as Covid ruins public finances, warns Westminster insider

October 20, 2020
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Universities should not rely on massive increases in research spending promised by the UK government given the budget cuts likely to flow from the coronavirus crisis, a Westminster insider has warned.

Jonathan Simons, head of education practice at public sector consultants Public First, told an event organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Elsevier that ministers’ continued commitment to increasing research spending to 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product by 2024-25 was “not a done deal” in light of the damage caused to the economy by the pandemic.

“Having a high-level funding commitment does not protect the sector,” explained Mr Simons, former head of education at the centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange, who also served as head of education at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown.

Mr Simons said universities and other research institutes “would not be immune from funding pressures” caused by the current recession.

His warning comes despite repeated assurances from ministers that research spending will rise rapidly over the next few years in line with last year’s Conservative manifesto pledge.

Earlier, science minister Amanda Solloway told the event that the government “remains committed to raising public spending on R&D to £22 billion per year by 2024-25”.

However, Mr Simons said, “even manifesto commitments are now off the table” and the “days of March and ‘we will spend whatever it takes’ are over” because the Treasury was now attempting to bring public spending under control.

Mr Simons explained that the Prime Minister’s office, including chief adviser Dominic Cummings and top ministers, were broadly “pro-science” and in favour of “elite education”, namely research-intensive universities, but said this in itself might not be enough to deliver the promised extra spending.

“The view that universities will be fine because the government loves research and medical science is potentially true, but a more pessimistic scenario is that the government does not want to give a large amount to a sector it does not trust,” Mr Simons said.

Despite the support that higher education and research enjoyed in some policy circles, these sectors were unlikely to be prioritised for extra money compared with more popular areas such as the NHS and other public services, he said.

“There is no prospect that the government will raise public spending – discretionary spending is just going to be less,” said Mr Simons.

He added: “If Keir Starmer’s government got in tomorrow, they would do almost nothing different.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Pandemic costs will affect everyone, not just Universities research, but if those in their ivory towers need to be told that I fear we're in for an even worse ride as a result of the lack of foresight and planning, situation nominal...

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