The UK science base must be protected from poorly thought out and badly implemented English higher education reforms, writes Dr Kieron Flanagan.
The UK science community has reacted with dismay to the news, leaked to the Guardian, that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (which makes science policy for the UK and provides funds for the UK wide research councils) is considering making cutting £100m+ from yearly science spending from 2015, as part of a strategy to deal with a big hole in its finances.
The UK science budget is nominally “ring-fenced” within BIS, a measure intended to reassure the science community and the wider public that science funding cash cannot be raided to help meet budget shortfalls elsewhere in the remit of this large ministry.
Of course, that ring fence hasn’t protected the science budget from austerity: though it was supposedly frozen in cash terms in 2010, capital spending was stripped out of the budget and given a hefty and damaging cut (which has since been partially reversed).
So far, so straightforward. Putting further strain on a science budget which has already seen effective cuts would be extremely unwise and even the existence of yet more uncertainty around future science spending will be damaging as universities, research groups and other actors make their own forward planning decisions.
But one aspect of this story has been little remarked upon thus far. That the ‘black hole’ in BIS finances stems from a greater than planned growth in student loans as a results of a failure to plan for and control student numbers on programmes (especially Higher National Diplomas and Higher National Certificates) offered by private so-called ‘alternative providers’ is well understood.
However, a point that appears to have been lost on most commentators and critics is that this BIS policy applies to England only – as part of the devolution settlement Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland make their own higher education policies. Conversely, BIS makes science policy and funds science for the UK as a whole. Indeed a single BIS minister, David Willetts, is responsible both for UK science and for English higher education. One of the little oddities of devolution, UK-style.
It is perhaps understandable that the Treasury would demand that the ministry responsible for making such a mess take the hit in terms of cuts. But in this case, cleaning up the mess created by a failure to make and implement good higher education policy for and in England threatens to impact upon the UK science base.
For various reasons it seems to makes sense for science policy to be a UK-wide competence. Indeed the Scottish Government has acknowledged this in its recent policy document Scotland’s Future, which states that, assuming the independence referendum is won, Scotland would wish to continue as a partner in the UK research council system as an independent nation. This is not surprising – Scotland does disproportionately well out of the research council system.
But the present messy arrangements have led us to a situation where an English policy failure threatens UK-wide science spending and a UK science minister is forced to contemplate making further science cuts which will impact upon Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as a result of problems arising out of his England-only higher education responsibilities.
This seems not only ridiculous but intolerable – and politicians, researchers and the wider public in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be particularly angry that this is even being contemplated. The idea of robbing the UK-wide science budget to pay for English mistakes would seem to be particularly barmy at a time when the current Prime Minister sees one of his major tasks as “defending the Union”.
I have long been concerned that there could be significant unintended impacts of the Coalition Government’s English higher education reforms – which are turning a ‘system’ into a set of competing institutions – on the science base.
I never dreamt they might come in this form. Putting the need to sort out English higher education policy to one side, surely it is now time to clarify the ring-fencing of the UK science budget on devolution grounds, and to consider separating out the role of UK science minister from that of English universities minister?