Minister hopes for ‘significant uplift’ in QR funding next year

Chris Skidmore tells peers he hopes for announcement soon but acknowledges that UK is ‘in a very strange place politically’

June 19, 2019
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Universities minister Chris Skidmore has said that he hopes to announce a “significant uplift” in quality-related research funding for English universities for 2019-20.

Mr Skidmore told members of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on 19 June that he was “fully aware of the historic reduction in real terms in QR funding” and the negative impact this had on institutions.

“There is obviously the question of what we can do to maintain base-level curiosity, flexibly driven research, and I am a big fan of ensuring we try and redress that balance of a decline when it comes to QR funding,” he said.

“I want in my tenure as universities minister to be looking at QR funding and providing a significant uplift. I hope that uplift will come shortly and that we’ll be able to make announcements for 2019-20 on QR funding,” he said.

However, Mr Skidmore acknowledged that the UK was “in a very strange place politically” and, with a Conservative leadership contest ongoing, it was unclear whether he would be in post beyond the summer.

QR funding is allocated to universities according to the results of the research excellence framework, and is used to fund research overheads, invest in new and emerging areas, and complement grant funding. It totals £1.6 billion this year, but its real-terms value has fallen by 13 per cent since 2010.

Referencing the government’s industrial strategy from 2017, Mr Skidmore highlighted to the committee that a White Paper included a promise from the government to “increase support for quality-related research through Research England” – something that he intended to uphold.

While he said he could not give more details yet, he would be “making a commitment” that would put universities in “a better place, certainly than even where [former universities minister] David Willetts was able to take us, which was a flat-cash settlement. But we will see an uplift that will achieve a real-terms increase.”

The reassurances come in response to continuing concerns expressed by sector leaders that universities were struggling to cover the costs of research – which is typically loss-making, and cross-subsidised by tuition fees from students.

At a previous hearing on the same subject, committee members were told of prestigious universities telling their researchers not to apply for certain streams of funding because they could not afford the overheads.

Any cut in tuition fees as a result of the Augar review of post-18 education could result in further reductions in university funding. Mr Skidmore said that he would “warn against any reduction in [the tuition] fee level without commensurate additional funding” from the Treasury.

“If I still am universities minister in the next eight weeks or so then I want to take forward [a] period of consultation. It is such a major shift…that it is important the sector is listened to [over Augar],” Mr Skidmore said.

Mr Skidmore also hinted at plans to reimagine the entire funding system, if he is still in a position to do so under a future government.

“In the longer term I think there is a wider issue about how we look at the funding of universities and tuition and whether we should be having cross-subsidies in place,” he said.

“I think that’s not something that can be answered in a single year or a single spending review but it’s one to pose…For universities to be sustainable in the future, it’s something for us to be looking at.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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