CEO Blog: All I want for Christmas is...

19 Dec 2013

Dear Vince and David,

We are not sure whether you’re playing Santa in your Twickenham and Havant constituencies this year. If not please feel free to use this photo montage. It may help to convince voters that you have entered into the festive spirit.

In case you do plan to play Santa, we have a couple of gifts on our wish-list for your Christmas swag bag – which is how we’ve come to refer to your annual letter to the Higher Education Funding Council. The BIS Santa sack has looked a little thin in recent years but we still hope that its contents raise a glass of good cheer.

First, we ask that you leave the tricky issue of student loan sales and repayments to the New Year. The underwhelming performance of Department and SLC officials, who appeared to wilt under the questioning of MPs at the Public Accounts Committee, is best put behind us. If the sums really are not adding up in the way that you forecasted (which we’ve suspected for a while), tackling one of those annoying brainteaser stocking fillers will surely be time well spent. Unravelling who really is paying what to whom, when, or not at all will be a key task best left to 2014 or even perhaps to the incoming government (of whatever party or parties) after the 2015 general election.

Next, please be careful when reviewing everyone’s letters to Santa. You’ll be well aware of those who sent in their wish lists early, but we don’t think you should be too swayed by timing. A cursory glance at Ministerial and Research Council announcements in 2013 reveals that some have had more than their fair share of presents already this year. If more gifts of research capital and project funding go to a small number of recipients, it may look like the kind of closed shop in which the Office of Fair Trading should take significant interest.

So if your Santa sack is to include even more one-off capital funding grants, please let them be more widely distributed – especially since there seems to be a distinct lack of gratitude in some quarters, in respect of the Chancellor’s bold decision to back the expansion of higher education in his recent Autumn Statement.

Of course there are some sound arguments to do much more to fund translational research that benefits regions and supports businesses large and small. Funding research excellence wherever it’s found should most certainly be included in the Christmas stocking. However, don’t forget that you’ve managed to do even more to concentrate funding by withdrawing cash from 2* research. So there are good reasons to consider what else might be done this Christmas. Rudolph might be a good source for ideas on this, since the Nordic countries have a much more innovative approach to funding research.

Now, here’s the big one for our BIS Christmas wish lists! A clear commitment to the continued funding of the Student Opportunity Allocation up to and including 2015-2016 would earn Santa a lot of mince pies from universities and students. Our report ‘Student Opportunity Funding: why it counts’ sets out all the reasons why you shouldn’t mix this up with Access funding. We know that you might be tempted to let HEFCE deal with this, but who wants a second-hand Christmas present? It’s much better that you back Student Opportunity funding with strong assurance and of course, the cash.

Capital funding for teaching would also be a cracker. There’s been precious little of it around and universities now have no other option but to ensure that surpluses and higher fees are sufficient to deliver investment in teaching, learning and the fundamental student experience.

And by the way, if your sleigh is anywhere near the vicinity of the Department of Education, Health and the Home Office, do stop for a mince pie. Their policies on teacher and health education, social work training and of course, international students, are causing lots of unnerving concerns for the near future.

So as you pack up those stockings and sign off those letters, we do hope that you’ll bring us some New Year good cheer on the Student Opportunity Allocation and capital funding for teaching.

We’d also like to thank you for all your support in 2013. Merry Christmas!

Best wishes,

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