Knives are out as Hefce breaks vow

January 25, 2002

The English funding council has reneged on its promise to fund lower-rated research and will cut funds for the good to pay for the best. Research funding will become more selective than ever before.

Some £940 million has been earmarked for research next year, the lion's share of which will be distributed using the results of the research assessment exercise. The board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England this week decided not to fund departments rated 3b in the RAE and to give only £20 million to those rated 3a. Earlier this week, the government unexpectedly put an extra £30 million into supporting high-quality English research. The extra £30 million will be targeted at departments rated 5, the second highest rating in the exercise. But the cost of fully rewarding the improved results would be £170 million.

The Hefce board reiterated its commitment to maintain the average unit of funding for top-rated 5* departments in real terms.

Giving evidence at the House of Commons select committee on science and technology on Wednesday, Bahram Bekhradnia, director of policy at Hefce, said that the funding per unit would reduce for 5-rated departments by about 15 per cent and by about 20 per cent for 4-rated departments.

Reacting to the news, Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "Rewarding the best should not penalise those who have delivered improved results and who could be the 4s and 5s of tomorrow. We acknowledge the need for selective allocation of research funding but Universities UK believes there is already sufficient selectivity in the system.

"And while we welcome the additional £30 million announced by the government to support world-class research departments in England, we are aware that this falls far short of the funding gap identified to meet the RAE 2001 ratings. Universities have delivered excellence in research: we will continue to urge the government to find the resources needed."

Liz Allen, national official of lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "A lot of institutions have really struggled to build up research profiles. One immediate concern is that work cannot be sustained if the university gets no funding or completely inadequate funding. In the longer term, the broadening of the research base, supporting the work in teaching, may now come to a halt and that would be a tremendous blow to the post-92 institutions."

A spokesman for the Association of University Teachers said: "We believe this will lead to the sharpening of knives. Hundreds and maybe thousands of staff are going to see the impact in a matter of months. Departments have been planning their budgets for the coming year based on certain assumptions. We are not just talking about compulsory redundancies but voluntary redundancies, alteration of job grades and non-renewal of contracts.

"The funding announcement on the RAE is a serious threat to the overall capacity of UK research, particularly in science and engineering. We believe that, as opposed to encouraging and rewarding research excellence, the new allocations will instead lead to further concentration of capacity, with redundancies and underfunding elsewhere."

In written evidence submitted to the House of Commons select committee on science's inquiry into the RAE, the AUT added: "This short-term palliative will create a longer-term crisis in UK science as new opportunities to conduct research become stifled. The science base is too important to the economic, cultural and social health of the UK to allow this ossification and stagnation to occur."

The AUT also called for £100 million seedcorn fund, available on application to researchers working in departments rated 1 or 2 or that did not enter the RAE.

A funding council spokesman said: "The reinstatement of reductions in the unit of resource for 5 and 4-rated departments will be a priority for any funding increase secured in the 2003 spending review."

The board also decided to abolish the cap on the number of students (MaSNs) an institution can recruit, after 10,000 places were left unfilled in autumn 2000.

Lady Warwick said: "It is vital that expansion following such a change be fully funded and care taken with the impact across the sector, particularly with regard to widening participation. Removing the MaSNs must not be viewed as a 'quick-fix' solution to concerns over student supply and demand. Changes will need to be carefully monitored."

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