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QR funding & research council reviews

December 21, 2014

So, I wasn’t planning on writing anything about the REF as it feels opaque to outsiders and the real stories of gameplaying and awry internal managerialism are better told by insiders. [I was once an insider but was given the initial choice of looking after the RAE or doctoral students (I choose the latter but sat across from the person who did the former).]

How though does it appear to the Treasury? This line from Mark Leach’s blog hits the spot:

However, it is clear that there has been substantial grade inflation in the results – everyone knows it, but it’s not in many people’s interests to say so. But some of the inexplicably large jumps in proportion of 4* and 3* research speak for themselves and vice chancellors of every stripe will freely admit this is the case (anonymously, of course). On the face of it, this helps feed the desired narrative that we are “doing more, better” – but ultimately it undermines the sector’s credibility and bargaining power with an austerity Treasury that simply will not buy it.

We should not forget that the sector has already had its cards marked with the decision to set undergraduate tuition fees at or around the maximum. Friday’s report from KPMG for Hefce indicates that on average £8000 should be sufficient with classroom subjects perhaps needing only £6000. As I have written before on here, we should expect tuition fees to be frozen over the next parliament and for cuts to have to come from elsewhere in BIS’s budget. The switch from direct institutional grants to higher tuition fees spared the HE sector from austerity felt in other publicly funded services; that trick can only be done once. (£800million emergency cuts planned for 2015/16 were only averted because the Treasury allowed the accounting conventions for student loans to be changed this April).

In the research budget, the obvious candidate is the ‘Quality related’ funding (the distribution of which is determined by REF results). Today’s Observer reports that this budget and the ‘dual support’ system of research funding is under threat. I am not sure this is quite accurate. Yes, QR funding has always been a likely target, but the new Science, Innovation and Growth strategy (a new joint HMT/BIS document released last Wednesday) states: ‘We will maintain stability and commitment to the core principles as advocated by stakeholders this includes the dual support system.’ (p.39)

Given how hard it is to find any reference to non-STEM subjects in that new strategy, I would guess that the scrutiny is on the QR budget for those subjects. We should also chuck into the mix the announcement that Paul Nurse is to lead a review into the other side of the dual track – the research councils. His terms of reference are here. I list the first four questions:

• Is the balance between investigator-led and strategically-focused funding appropriate, and do the right mechanisms exist for making strategic choices?

• Within each Research Council is the balance of funding well-judged between support of individual investigators, support of teams and support of equipment and infrastructure?

• How should the Research Councils take account of wider national interests including regional balance and the local and national economic impact of applied research?

• Is the balance of funding between different Research Councils optimal?

My own sense, again as an outsider, is that these questions indicate a preference for  the big science, great technologies and tech transfer ‘third mission’ of the Autumn Statement and other recent Treasury announcements about ‘northern powerhouses’; they might prove more troublesome for the AHRC and the ESRC.

The Observer reports that Universities UK  ‘should now be “prepared to make a robust case in support of quality-related (QR) funding”’. I would add ‘as it stands’. The robust case is going to need to come from arts, humanities, creative disciplines and social sciences. And come as a defence of public funding of research in determined institutional settings, not – as has too often been the case recent years – as the value of reading books, general intellectual inquiry and going to plays. The philistine defence is a poor one.




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