The UK government has announced a £45 million increase to quality-related research funding for English universities for 2019-20 – the first real-terms rise in support after nearly a decade of decline.
A budget overview for the sector published on 2 July shows a planned total spend of around £2.2 billion for research and knowledge exchange. Of that total, £1.095 billion has been earmarked for mainstream QR funding – 4.3 per cent higher than the same sum allocated for 2018-19.
The news follows a pledge made by the universities minister to provide a “significant uplift” in QR, following ongoing concerns expressed by sector leaders over the increased financial pressures faced by their institutions.
The budget for 2019-20 equates to an additional £91 million for universities overall, a move Research England said was “a helpful step” towards the government’s goal of spending 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development.
QR funding is allocated to universities according to the results of the research excellence framework. It is used to fund research overheads, invest in new and emerging areas, and complement grant funding, but its real-terms value has fallen by 13 per cent since 2010, forcing universities to rely more heavily on cross-subsidisation of other areas of income for their research.
The additional £45 million goes some way towards redressing the gap highlighted by economists, but sector leaders have stressed that more focus is needed on the value of QR in the longer term.
Mark Smith, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, said the move was “a step in the right direction which is very welcome”.
“I would not want to come across as churlish, so credit where credit is due,” he told Times Higher Education. “There is however the need for a fundamental debate on the level of QR that is right to underpin the other funding streams from government such as [UK Research and Innovation] and…charities.”
Professor Smith’s comments referred to how funding received by universities from charities or European Union schemes typically made up less than two-thirds of the total cash needed to fund research projects, leaving universities to find the difference elsewhere.
In the 2019-20 budget, the charity research element of QR was maintained at £204 million, with no increase on last year.
Daniel Rathbone, assistant director for the Campaign for Science and Engineering responded that "significant further uplifts will be required" to meet industrial strategy goals required of the sector.
"We strongly welcome this increase in mainstream QR funding, which helps sustain the breadth and diversity of the UK’s research landscape," he said. "However, it should be seen in the context...that mainstream QR has dropped 13 per cent in real terms between 2010-11 and 2017-18."
Universities minister Chris Skidmore said he was “delighted that for the first time since 2010, we have a significant uplift in QR funding for universities”. The announcement marked “an important recognition of…the need to invest more in flexible, curiosity-driven research that has tremendous benefits to developing our international standing as a research powerhouse,” he said.
Alongside the additional £45 million for mainstream QR, a total of £46 million was allocated to national initiatives, including Research England’s Expanding Excellence in England (E3) Fund – which received £21 million more than last year.
A further £10 million was set aside for the Global Challenges Research Fund, taking the total budget to £68 million, and an extra £13 million for strategic priorities (rising from £16 million to £29 million).
The Higher Education Innovation Fund remains the same as the previous year, at £210 million, and the QR business research element remains at £64 million.
An institutional breakdown of the funding is due at the end of July.
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