In the era of austerity, spending reviews prompt wild speculation about the extent of cuts. And in this one, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills seems to be the epicentre of wild speculation – maybe even where the wild things are.
Given George Osborne’s order for departments to model 25 per cent and 40 per cent cuts to their budgets, Sajid Javid, the business secretary, is rumoured to favour the 40 per cent option.
The review of BIS-funded bodies carried out by management consultants McKinsey, at the behest of Javid, is said to have delivered its report last week.
Into that context dropped this week’s missive from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
“Following a request from the minister for universities and science [Jo Johnson] Hefce, in partnership with the other UK funding bodies, has agreed to delay publishing a consultation on the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) until the conclusion of the spending review,” the funding council said.
It added: “We welcome the government’s ongoing commitment to the dual support system and look forward to working with the sector, the research community and research users to develop the most appropriate framework for the next REF.”
Is BIS thinking about taking away quality-related research funding from Hefce and scrapping the REF in its current guise?
That would potentially allow the government to scrap Hefce in the drive for cuts. Given the switch of teaching funding away from grants to student tuition fees, the funding council would no longer be doing any funding.
The consultation postponement adds to the impression that big changes are coming.
Moves on QR would leave some big questions about how the funding stream (currently amounting to £1.6 billion a year) would be allocated, if not by Hefce. QR allocation could be taken on by the research councils (or council, if the idea of merging them, also said to be under consideration in the spending review, comes about) or directly by BIS, some suggest.
Allocating QR funding on the basis of existing research council grant allocations would be a radical and cheap option for a new method.
Other options for a cheaper REF would be a metrics-based exercise or one that happens less frequently than the current five-yearly schedule.
In a story I wrote earlier this month, Emran Mian, the director of the Social Market Foundation who was lead civil servant on the Browne review, said: “I don’t have any kind of axe to grind against Hefce and there are some great people there, but it feels out of place in the new funding environment.”
That went down badly with some supporters of Hefce, who point out that its funding role has already been overtaken by a range of new regulatory roles (private providers and Prevent, for example).
Some kind of regulatory body will be needed, as Johnson has indicated.
At the very least, you might bet on a name change for Hefce and another addition to higher education’s endless stream of acronyms.
What happens to Hefce may be seen as reconfiguration, it may be seen as abolition.