Universities will need to be much more selective about who they submit to future research excellence frameworks as the concentration of funding becomes much tougher, a senior sector figure has warned.
Adam Tickell, provost and vice-principal of the University of Birmingham, told the Higher Education Policy Institute’s research conference last week that UK universities had lived through “remarkable” times, with science funding rising year on year under the Labour government and being protected in cash terms by the coalition.
“We’ve fared better under a Conservative chancellor than either the armed forces or the police. Four years ago I wouldn’t have thought that possible,” he said.
However, the political signals suggested that continuing constraints in funding meant that the concentration of funding on excellence was likely to become even more pronounced over the next few years. He said that the removal in 2011 of funding for work rated 2* meant that half the work Birmingham submitted to the 2008 research assessment exercise was not funded – something the institution had taken as a “serious wake‑up call”.
Birmingham had responded by making a “major investment” in its “intellectual infrastructure” and by being “tough on low levels of performance”.
Earlier this year, University and College Union members at Birmingham threatened to strike over what they claimed was the institution’s heavy-handed management of research. But Professor Tickell said that evidence suggested that “some of our marginal people have really responded very positively”.
He told the event – for which Times Higher Education was media sponsor – that all universities would need to take similar measures and to be “much more selective” about who was submitted to the REF if even greater dominance of research funding by the largest research universities was to be avoided. This might make it irrational for some institutions to make any submissions, since the necessary effort outweighed the potential gains.
This need for greater selectivity was the main reason he rejected a call at the conference by David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, for future REFs to include a metrics-based assessment of all outputs produced by all academics within the assessment period.
Professor Tickell’s prediction of a tough spending settlement for research in the post-election spending review was echoed by Sir John O’Reilly, director general of knowledge and innovation at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
The likely persistence of a substantial deficit meant that an extension of the current flat-cash settlement “might be seen as a good outcome”. This would see budgets at the end of the next spending period in 2019 being based on figures first set in 2007. Bahram Bekhradnia, director of Hepi, noted that this would amount to a real-terms cut of a third by 2019.
Sir John said he was working with bodies such as the royal academies, the Russell Group and the CBI to try to marshal a “top-level”, evidence-based agreement on “what good looks like” in science spending, based on “the sort of economy and society the UK needs and wishes to have”.
“It would be healthy if…the debate [at the spending review] could be at least partially informed by where we need to be rather than solely where we have most recently been,” he said.