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After the green paper comes the spending review…

  • 17 November 2015
  • By Nick Hillman

The publication of the higher education green paper a few days ago was a big moment for English policymaking – even if the chilling events in Paris have made such parochial concerns seem less important, as well as serving to remind people of an atrocity in which students at a Kenyan University were murdered in April.

As minds remain (rightly) fixed on how to deal with international terrorism, the preparations for the forthcoming spending review, due on 25th November, are nonetheless continuing.

A number of Whitehall Departments have settled, but the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) that looks after higher education policy is not yet one of them. Opinions remain mixed as to whether the big savings from abolishing maintenance grants, which were announced in July, will count as a downpayment and therefore insulate BIS against the deepest cuts.

Nick Timothy, a former special adviser to Theresa May, has today written a lengthy piece for the website ConservativeHome about how spending reviews operate from the inside. Even though every spending review is different and the past is not always a good guide to the future, it should still be essential reading for all those who want to understand what is currently going on in Whitehall.

In relation to higher education and research, three points stand out from the last spending review for for me, when I was working as a special adviser inside BIS.

  1. The Treasury is a stronger defender of the science ring fence than many people inside BIS. This is because, if you work in any area of BIS other than science and research, then the ring fence is a pain as it stops budgets from being shifted around. If, say, apprenticeships turn out to be underfunded, you cannot raid the science and research budget even if the latter looks like it has an underspend. Given George Osborne’s desire to be seen as a ‘Science Chancellor‘, the scientific community should probably regard the Treasury as an ally rather than an enemy, although that does not exempt it from needing strong evidence.
  2. The Treasury will expect a payback for any apparent generosity. The price they set for agreeing to protect the science and research budget in cash terms back in 2010 was the ‘impact’ element of the Research Excellence Framework, which had been put on a back burner after the Coalition came to office. As the Nurse review completes its work, all those lobbying for more cash should think about the prices that are worth paying – and those that might not be.
  3. Spending reviews are not the final word. In 2010, for example, science and research capital spending was set much lower than it actually turned out to be because extra funds were found at later fiscal events. If, say, the Student Opportunities Allocation were to be slashed in the forthcoming spending review, as may well happen, it is not completely impossible that the sector could win some of it back in the years ahead. Whether it does so or not will depend on the quality of the evidence base as well as wider economic circumstances.

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