British University Reform Would Buff Up Research Labs

The British government must spend more on scientific infrastructure to begin reversing a decade of chronic underfunding, says a major new report. The report, published yesterday, also recommends sweeping changes to Britain's higher education system--including an end to the widely cherished notion of free higher education.

The 1700-page, 6.5 kilogram report was commissioned 15 months ago by the former Tory government. Its members, drawn from academia and industry, were asked to suggest ways to improve the quality of higher education and to accommodate more students--some 45% of high-school graduates by 2017, up from the present 32%--without spending more public money. The committee, chaired by long-time education reformer Sir Ronald Dearing, estimated that it would cost an extra $3.2 billion a year to handle the increased enrollment, and it recommended raising the money by charging students $1600 in annual fees.

The committee identified infrastructure as the most pressing research need on campus, estimating that some $800 million in repairs and renovations is needed urgently. The cost of these improvements would be met by low-interest loans from a new industry-government partnership. But continuing the trend of concentrating research, the committee recommends that only top university labs be eligible for the program.

Some scientists are skeptical of the proposals offered by the Dearing panel. John Mulvey, spokesperson for the lobby group Save British Science, describes the loan program as a cumbersome, slow, uncertain, and inefficient way to invest in scientific facilities and believes the government should stump the funds. The government welcomed the report and will prepare new legislation later this year.