Penalties and prize money

George Osborne’s ambitions for northern research powerhouses may be undermined by post-REF funding allocations

March 26, 2015

George Osborne attended a christening the day after last week’s Budget. His god-daughter? A couple of hundred tonnes of locomotive steel, which will chug between Liverpool Lime Street and Manchester Airport. The train’s name is Northern Powerhouse.

The clunky photo opportunity had a familiar feel. The chancellor has been relentless in his repetition of the “northern powerhouse” slogan. It’s his favourite soundbite after “long-term economic plan”. And in the Budget speech, he indicated again that universities are central to his vision, promising to focus on “manufacturing and science and the northern powerhouse for a truly national recovery”.

With this in mind, the settlements for the northern research powerhouses in this week’s higher education funding allocations come as a bit of a reality check.

Of the 20 English institutions in the Russell Group, all those in the north lost money once you strip out the cushion of transitional funding

The distribution of cash is, of course, heavily influenced by the 2014 research excellence framework, and after all the game-playing, the league tables, the debates about the relative merits of grade point average, research power and research intensity as indicators of success, the divvying-up is now done. It’s belt-tightening for the likes of the University of Manchester, whose allocation for research will fall by 17.1 per cent once transitional funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England runs out in 2016-17, the University of Leeds (-8.7 per cent), the University of Liverpool (-8.4 per cent) and the University of Sheffield (-5.6 per cent).

It’s hard to square these figures with the role that the institutions are expected to play in rebalancing the national economy. It’s also striking that many that will be hardest hit are heavily science-focused, including such southern powerhouses as the University of Cambridge (-3.4 per cent) and Imperial College London (-5.0 per cent).

These last in particular show that a good REF result, as measured by GPA, is no guarantee of bucketloads of cash, especially after the decision to ditch the science, technology, engineering and mathematics ring-fence in the funding formula.

Indeed, of the 20 English institutions in the Russell Group, all those in the north of the country lost research money once you strip out the cushion of transitional funding. Across the N8 group of northern research-intensive universities, funding will fall by 4 per cent with transitional funding next year, and by 8 per cent once it runs out.

The local effects of the allocations are likely to be keenly felt, and elsewhere in our news pages, we focus on planned cuts to the politics department at the University of Surrey.

Under proposals currently being consulted on, the number of academics in the department could be cut from 14 to six, but as students have been quick to point out, the department scores very highly in the National Student Survey, ranked fourth in the UK.

The problem is that it fared far less well in the REF, coming 50th out of 56 politics departments when assessed on GPA. As is observed in our report, faced with difficult choices (to use another Osborne soundbite), university managers follow the money, and at present there is no direct financial reward for good teaching or penalty for bad, whereas there is a very clear penalty for a poor REF score. The implications are now being felt at Surrey, as they will be, no doubt, in many other departments, north and south.

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