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The HE White Paper; well-intentioned but lacking detail

20 May 2016

Professor Lord May of Oxford gives his initial thoughts on the HE White Paper.

I have been living in Britain since 1988, and in the 15 years before that spent my summers visiting ecologist friends in the UK. Whilst I may be revealing ignorance, I am not aware of any previous UK Government setting out its strategies for research activities and funding in such detail as the 83 page White Paper on “Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice”.

This White Paper defies summary.  It is accompanied by an explanatory message from its author, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson.  It outlines lots of well-intentioned proposals, aiming to “promote transparency by opening up data held by the [tertiary institutions’] informing choice and promoting social mobility, and requiring institutions to publish application, offer, acceptance and progression rates broken down by gender, ethnicity and disadvantage.

This is obviously much easier said than done. 

Jo Johnson recognises that this is “a time of difficult spending decisions elsewhere in the public sector”, but at the same time reassures the community that “Government has protected the science budget”.  He puts great emphasis upon the importance of building collaborations across disciplines (and between countries), along with finding new applications for technology and seizing commercial opportunities.  Johnson also emphasizes that “That’s the context in which we will bring together the seven research councils, integrate Innovative UK and the research and knowledge exchange functions of HEFCE under a single strategic funding body, UK Research & Innovation (UKRI).  Johnson follows this with other reassuring statements. 

On the other hand, among these “reassuring statements” are such things as “levelling the playing field through deregulation”, and other similar statements, which are subject to more than one interpretation.  All in all, I felt this was a rather vacuous document, although a well-intentioned one. 

It will be interesting to see how things actually evolve!

Lord May previously served as Government Chief Scientific Adviser and President of the Royal Society.

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