Key subjects risk axe as metrics augur cash cuts

June 23, 2006

Anna Fazackerley reports on the fears sparked by the new funding models

Key disciplines may face the axe in cash-strapped universities if the Government presses ahead with plans for a new metrics-based assessment of research, academics warned this week.

The Department for Education and Skills sparked widespread anxiety last week with the publication of five metrics models that could replace the unpopular research assessment exercise after 2008.

Some of Britain's most respected research institutions, including Imperial College London and Cambridge University, stand to lose millions under most of the five models.

And a Times Higher investigation suggests that key subjects may be threatened if the models are put into practice as they stand.

Mathematicians were rallying to fight the proposals this week.

According to calculations by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, based on 2002-03 income, pure and applied maths research would lose about £17 million under models A and E. Such a cut would have a profound effect, given that the overall government research budget for maths in 2002-03 was £22 million.

Peter Cooper, executive secretary of the London Mathematical Society, said:

"Maths is already in a slightly dodgy position because it isn't a high grant-earning subject. This could quite dramatically change the balance of that. We are extremely concerned."

When the Treasury announced its desire to radically overhaul the research funding system, it acknowledged that a simple income-based measurement would not work for maths.

This week, senior mathematicians expressed shock that the Government had now chosen to judge their desk-based discipline, which attracts much smaller research grants, alongside the so-called big sciences.

Ursula Martin, vice-president for science and engineering at Queen Mary, University of London, said: "If you look at the way maths works as a discipline, you get a lot of different behaviours. You have fantastically clever people who have never had a research grant in their life and have never needed one." She added: "Any model that favours big equipment and big teams will be damaging to any science that doesn't work that way."

Martin Bridson, professor of pure mathematics at Imperial, said: "The mathematics community was taken aback by the document. There is a general feeling that the needs of mathematicians have been overlooked. People are alarmed."

Other theoretical subjects are similarly penalised for the small-scale nature of their research. The London Mathematical Society confirmed this week that it would work with the statistical research community - which could drop more than £6 million on models A and E - on a "robust"

response to the Government's consultation.

Computer science takes the biggest hammering. The discipline faces potential funding cuts of more than £14 million under model A, more than £5 million under model D and more than £12 million under model E.

But the picture is not gloomy across the board. Under the proposals, it becomes extremely profitable to have strong medical research teams.

According to Hefce calculations, community and hospital-based clinical research could gain more than £45 million under model A, £13 million under model D and £36 million under model E.

The Academy of Social Sciences will meet next week to discuss how to ensure that social science, which is not mentioned in the document, is not overlooked.

Nigel Gilbert, professor of sociology at Surrey University who will chair the meeting, said: "Social science clearly doesn't work in the same way as physics and chemistry, and we need to make sure it receives particular consideration."

He added: "One hundred years ago you could count the number of UK social scientists on one hand. Now in most universities the social science faculty is as big as the natural science faculty. It is so last century to not mention social science at all."

Rama Thirunamachandran, director of research at Hefce, said: "The whole point of the exercise is to have a full and thorough consultation. The models are indicative. They are broad approaches to possible ways forward - we proposed five but one could have put up 150."

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, told a conference on the RAE last Wednesday: "We have not set out with the aim of deliberately redistributing funding. These models were illustrative answers only."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk </a>

 

Will your vice-chancellor be taking a hard look at your subject?

We reveal the top five subject losers under each of the Government's proposed metrics models

Model A:

  • Computer science
  • Applied maths
  • Allied health professions
  • Pure maths
  • Chemistry

Model B:

  • Biology
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Mechanical, aeronautical engineering
  • Electrical and electronic engineering

Model C:

  • Designed to be static

Model D:

  • Allied health professions
  • Computer science
  • Agriculture
  • Nursing
  • Community-based clinical subjects

Model E:

  • Computer science
  • Allied health professions
  • Applied maths
  • Pure maths
  • Statistics and operational research

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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