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Would Tories put research on the chopping block?

Research funding may not be protected from cuts under a Conservative government, judging by comments made by shadow universities secretary David Willetts this week. So far, the government’s cuts to higher education have mainly fallen on capital budgets and the teaching block grant.

Willetts, at the Times Higher Education Pre-election Debate in London on 24 February, said teaching and research funding needed to be rebalanced with a greater focus on the student experience. Higher education minister David Lammy and Liberal Democrat shadow universities secretary Stephen Williams joined him to lay out how each party would maintain the UK’s strengths in teaching and research.

To an audience filled with students all three MPs professed their backing for raising standards in education, increasing information available to students and raising the profile of teaching to be respected on par with research.

Willetts said he wanted incentives for teaching to be comparable to the funding dished out via research assessment, but he did not specify what they might be or how they might work.

Williams and Lammy also put their weight behind teaching with Williams saying he would encourage rewarding good teachers through promotions. Lammy did not lay out any proposals, saying it was “not something where the government would want to direct”, but said if he had just one goal for the next five years it was that he did not want teaching to be seen as “second tier” within universities.

No one was able to say their party wouldn’t cut higher education spending; hard times ahead was the accepted outlook. Lammy defended the measures the government had already taken while Willetts admitted his party was unlikely to reverse cuts. But, he said, the Conservatives would be clear on when and where cuts would fall, and “level with universities on what it actually means”.

Meanwhile Williams lamented the fact that the Browne review on funding and fees, which would better lay out the challenge ahead, would not come before the election.He called it a “tragedy is that there will now be no open debate before the election” and instead “lots of wait and sees”.

So,how well did each pitch go down? In a Ready Steady Cook style vote at the end Labour narrowly beat the Lib Dems as having the audience’s favourite higher education policy, with blue votes few and far between. This was despite the fact that on the question of who they thought would win the next election, the Tories won by a landslide.