Regional research funding disparity causes anger

Welsh institutions claim disadvantage over grant allocation increases, writes Zoe Corbyn

March 26, 2009

Universities in Wales have been left aggrieved by the news that this year's increase in research funding is half that enjoyed by English institutions.

Concerns have been raised by individual universities and by their representative body Higher Education Wales (HEW) that last week's grant allocations will leave them struggling to compete.

Whereas research funding for English universities has increased by 8 per cent for the next academic year, their counterparts in Wales received a rise of 4 per cent.

The biggest loser was Cardiff University, which got £2.2 million less for research, while the largest percentage increases in research money went to teaching-led institutions such as Swansea Metropolitan University.

Teresa Rees, pro vice-chancellor for research at Cardiff, warned that the difference between the settlements would hit Welsh institutions hard. She said: "This is no time to be having a funding gap."

Greg Walker, the acting chief executive of the HEW, urged the Welsh Government to tackle this gap as it rethinks its investment in higher education (see right).

Meanwhile, David Warner, vice-chancellor of Swansea Metropolitan University, said his institution's success was down to its "careful strategy" to concentrate in four areas. The university won quality-related research funding for the first time, and increased its total research funding by 231 per cent.

Professor Rees said the fall in research funding for Cardiff was "disappointing", but that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales' decision to not fund lots of very small pockets of excellence had limited the damage.

On top of the individual woes of some Welsh institutions, it has emerged this week that the sector's funding allocations may not be as solid as they seem. A caveat in the 2009-10 grant letter says it is possible that funding could change.

David Blaney, the HEFCW's director of strategic development, said the clause was linked to "general economic circumstances" and that the sector was being alerted to the "possibility" and not "probability" of any change. Even so, this prospect worried some, who said any change would be a cut in funding.

"I have never known a year in which there is a risk of a change so material that it is actually included in the circular letter," Professor Warner said. He added that such uncertainty had implications as universities prepared their budgets, and would lead to some erring on the safe side and keeping things tight.

It also emerged that the HEFCW had yet to receive its letter from the Welsh Assembly setting out its overall direction. This is usually sent before the allocations are unveiled.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

WELSH TUITION-FEE GRANT TO DISAPPEAR

The grant that Welsh students receive to help ameliorate the burden of top-up fees is to be phased out from September 2010.

The £1,940 "tuition-fee grant", which is provided regardless of background, is to be scrapped for new students. Instead, more help is to be directed to those from lower income backgrounds.

From 2010, a total of £44 million a year is to be redirected to the means-tested "assembly learning grant".

An extra £31 million per year will also go to universities to address Welsh Assembly Government priorities, beginning in 2015.

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