Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100
WEDNESDAY 29 JULY 1998
100. I would like to ask whether you will be
taking any steps to make sure that at least some of the extra
£300 million is earmarked specifically for blue skies research?
(Baroness Blackstone) I would be amazed if the universities
did not want to use some of this extra money for blue skies research
because this is the main source of additional funding for such
research. Sometimes research councils also fund blue skies projects
and I would hope that the extra money that is going through OST
would be used for that purpose as well as for more applied kinds
of programmes or projects. But, no, I cannot believe that either
vice chancellors or the heads of big science departments would
want to do other than allocate a substantial part of that funding,
not all of it.
101. But you will be leaving that to the vice
(Baroness Blackstone) We will leave it to them.
102. Can you tell us whether some of the new
money will be available to encourage interdisciplinary research
and even inter-institutional collaboration?
(Baroness Blackstone) I would personally hope very
much that institutional collaboration will be encouraged and that
the additional funding might be allocated in that way, but as
I said right at the outset, we have not yet started on our discussions
with the Higher Education Funding Council on this. I also believe
that inter-disciplinary research is important, but I think it
is up to the Funding Council, along with the universities, to
signal encouragement for that kind of work. I think collaboration
is particularly important because there are not only benefits
in terms of economies of scale and value for money, but also larger
groups can sometimes produce the kind of critical mass that will
have as its outcome very high quality research.
103. Other than your comments today, which you
would probably hope various bodies would read, will you be encouraging
them to go along in this particular direction?
(Baroness Blackstone) Of collaboration?
(Baroness Blackstone) Yes, I think we are likely to
want to encourage that.
105. Minister, as you will know, in the Committee's
report we concluded that infrastructure funding should primarily
be the responsibility for the funding councils and therefore for
the departments. Why has the Research Council arm of the Dual
Support System been given the responsibility for administering
the fund rather than the funding councils?
(Baroness Blackstone) I do not really think it matters
very much which government department or which body administers
a fund of this sort as long as it is well spent and sensibly spent.
I really think that there is rather too much turf war infighting
going on. I personally believe that OST will do a very good job
in allocating the extra infrastructure funding that is needed.
I know that they will consult the Higher Education Funding Council
106. Will this mean that the funding councils
will reduce their current funding for capital projects and infrastructure
support? Is this the best arrangement?
(Baroness Blackstone) No, because we have already
announced an additional £300 million for research in universities,
a substantial part of which is likely to be spent on capital funding.
107. Does your Department support the Dual Support
System? Is it in favour of the Dual Support System?
(Baroness Blackstone) It is.
108. Is there not a danger that with £600
million of the infrastructure fund coming from the OST some leakage
could take place in this research and teaching freedom that vice
chancellors are given? The very fact that infrastructure is being
catered for better than from another source means that infrastructure
needs the money less. So rather than the rest of the money going
to research, as it were, it could be diverted to teaching?
(Baroness Blackstone) I think that is highly unlikely.
I do not see why that should be an outcome. I think that leading
researchers in our universities (and I have some experience of
this as a former head of a higher education institution) are pretty
determined to ensure that money that has been allocated for research
is spent on research. So vice chancellors are subjected to quite
a lot of pressure to allocate money in the way for which it was
109. Minister, does the creation of the new
infrastructure fund in any way affect current schemes such as
the Joint Research Equipment Initiative or any other such schemes?
(Baroness Blackstone) The intention is that that initiative
should continue so I do not believe that it will in any way be
affected, at least not for the foreseeable future.
110. What role will your Department be playing
in the review of the Dual Support System being conducted by the
Director General of the Research Councils?
(Baroness Blackstone) The Higher Education Funding
Councils are not just for England but also for Scotland and Wales,
who will be represented on that review. We will have indirect
involvement by HEFCE.
111. Are they happy with the fact that it will
be chaired by someone who represents one limb of the Dual Support
(Baroness Blackstone) I have not heard that anybody
is unhappy. I have not heard a criticism on that count.
112. Do you have views as to the key features
of the present Dual Support System that ought to be retained at
(Baroness Blackstone) I think that it is valuable
to universities to have a dual system for funding research partly
because of the importance of blue skies research and also because
I think it is difficult for universities to sustain the kind of
continuity of staffing that they need. Let us take technicians
as an example. If everything is done on the basis of programme
and project funding, when your programme or your project comes
to an end and if you have not yet managed to secure additional
programme or project funding via the research councils you are
often left with a very difficult situation where you have good
staff who you do not want to lose, who are employed on a contract
and it is also very hard on those staff. Dual support funding
helps with that.
113. How can either the Funding Council or your
Department ensure that when the universities get an increment
in funds they do not just spend it on revenue projects and we
end up with the infrastructure in the universities going downhill
and downhill again having pulled it up with this exceptional funding?
(Baroness Blackstone) It is perfectly easy to earmark
funding for infrastructure spending and I believe that is what
we will want to do with a substantial part of the additional £300
114. So the Department will monitor where the
money is going and not just let it be sent out into more and more
(Baroness Blackstone) The Higher Education Funding
Council will do that monitoring rather than the Department directly.
115. How do you feel about the tables in the
papers rating universities? Do you think that is destructive or
instructive? In the papers today there is first league, second
league, third league, fourth league. Do you think the media is
helpful in that in what we are trying to achieve here?
(Baroness Blackstone) I am really sorry, I have not
seen today's papers and therefore I have not seen the tables.
Have you seen them?
116. What about the principle?
(Mrs Wilde) I have not seen these particular ones
but the principle of league tables is not one that is very popular
with universities although they entirely accept the idea that
there should be performance indicators and that universities should
benchmark themselves against each other. What is less acceptable
to universities is they should be compared as if they are all
the same. Clearly there are differences in tradition and it is
not helpful for a traditional research oriented university to
be compared with one of the new universities that is predominantly
teaching. That is why there is concern about league tables. We
are working with the universities, with the funding councils and
the CVCP to develop performance indicators and to take forward
the idea of benchmarking amongst families of like institutions.
117. If you wish to continue that is fine but
I think Dr Gibson has taken us slightly off course.
(Baroness Blackstone) I will drop it.
Chairman: I am sure Dr Turner is going to bring
us back on course.
118. Coming back to the Comprehensive Spending
Review, it refers to "new arrangements to ensure that the
HEFCE and the research councils work together to deliver better
value, transparency and targeting in the use of science research
funding" etc. Will the new arrangements you envisage ensure
that the HEFCE and the research councils do work together more
effectively and do you think that similar arrangements will apply
to the Welsh and Scottish Funding Councils?
(Baroness Blackstone) I really cannot speak for the
Welsh and Scottish Councils, I think you would have to ask the
appropriate Welsh and Scottish Ministers who relate to those Councils.
As far as England is concerned, we are going to set up consideration
of that particular recommendation that comes out of the Comprehensive
Spending Review, and again I do apologise but it is a little early
for me to give you a properly thought through answer as to what
the best particular mechanisms are for encouraging (a) greater
transparency and (b) greater collaboration and co-operation between
the various different parties that you have mentioned. I would
be very happy to come back at a later date when we have actually
completed the work that needs to be done. I think it would be
a bit premature for me to stick my neck out now and say how we
ought to be doing this.
119. Looking for indications of your thinking,
presumably it relates back to your earlier answer and the concern
about what would happen at the end of the contract funding and
if there is a little more collaboration some of those situations
could be eased somewhat.
(Baroness Blackstone) Yes. I think that is exactly
the sort of area where we might see sensible arrangements made
between HEFCE on the one hand and the research councils on the
other to ensure that we do not get those sorts of discontinuities
leading to sometimes very unfortunate situations for contracted
Dr Turner: I know, I have been there. It is
obviously not fair to push you further on that point, Minister.
120. I think, Minister, that means we have come
to the end of our questions which you have answered very succinctly
and very clearly, as always. We are most grateful to you and we
are very grateful to you as well for finding the time from what
must be a busyperiod following a Government reshuffle to come
and see us. We appreciate your help. We hope you have time to
read the papers in due course and when you do perhaps you will
notice that one of the new universities, at which you presented
my daughter with a degree 15 years ago, is currently second.
(Baroness Blackstone) Very good. I am delighted to
hear that and I shall go straight to the newspapers and try to
find out which one it is.8
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.