Ongoing UK Research Problems (6) – Divide and Conquer

(October 19th, 2017) Independent of Brexit uncertainties, Jeremy Garwood reports on a number of other UK government policy changes and plans that are already changing the UK research labscape.

The UK government’s Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) brings major changes to the organisation and funding of UK scientific research and universities. When HERB was debated in the UK House of Lords in January, the Lords (and university leaders) were firmly opposed to attempts at full-scale “marketisation” of the higher education sector. They claimed the reforms would destroy the “cherished autonomy of UK universities and allow political interference by ministers into how they are run, teach courses and conduct research.”

Lord Patten, former chairman of the Conservative Party, and now the Chancellor of Oxford University, described the reforms as “hamfisted”, coming at a time when universities were already facing massive challenges as a result of the Brexit vote and changes to immigration policy. He said ministers appeared to have little regard for, or knowledge of, the university system. For Lord Stevenson, the Labour Party’s higher education spokesman, “this bill is an attempt from the government to run a market experiment through the bloodstream of our university system, and a classic case of understanding the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” Government ministers argued that the bill would raise standards by increasing competition, by “making it easier for new high-quality providers to start up and achieve degree-awarding powers, and subsequently secure university status.”

The Lords duly defeated the government over HERB when it was debated in the House of Lords, but the government was not obliged to accept their changes because the House of Commons has priority over the Lords and can reject its decisions, which it did. It had been hoped that increasing debate on the contentious implications of HERB would lead to wider public opposition forcing the government to make concessions. However, this did not happen.

Instead, in November 2016, the government succeeded in dividing the protesters. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, unexpectedly promised lots of extra research funding, effectively killing off opposition from the research community. “An unexpected autumn statement windfall for research, innovation and industrial strategy has given scientists their first bit of cheer for a while” noted the Guardian. “The research community hasn’t had much to smile about in recent months. Faced with the grinding uncertainties of Brexit, concerns over university finances, and a root-and-branch reorganisation of the funding system, 2016 has been morphing into the sector’s own annus horribilis.”

But then, Theresa May declared that her government would “commit to substantial real terms increases in government investment in R&D -  investing an extra £2 billion a year by the end of this Parliament to help put post-Brexit Britain at the cutting edge of science and tech”. Although the Prime Minister’s speech offered little detail, Nature announced a  “Cautious welcome for UK government’s vague £2-billion research pledge”.

Further details soon emerged, indicating that this really was new money for R&D. By 2020, UK government spending on R&D will grow to an additional £2bn over and above existing spending, an increase of about a fifth, representing the largest increase in R&D investment in any UK Parliament since 1979.

As the Guardian noted, this promise of new research money - following on the fears of Brexit – meant that any “lingering opposition” to UKRI, which was expected to intensify when the higher education and research bill headed to the House of Lords, is now “dead in the water.” To prove the value of the new body, Jo Johnson, the UK’s universities and science minister “simply needs to smile and utter the words ‘£4.7 billion’ ”
Despite continued warnings that the “Higher Education Bill Concessions Are A Minor Detour On The Road To Privatisation”, the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) became law in April 2017. “It represents the most important legislation for the sector in 25 years”, said Viscount Younger.

The Act creates a single strategic research body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), to take overall control of the UK’s seven research councils, Innovate UK, and the research functions of higher education (HEFCE). However, as described in the next part, the naming of UKRI’s first head brought further controversy.

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Pixabay/Capri23auto

Last Changes: 11.14.2017