V-cs welcome QR funding signal but fear Westminster instability

Sector leaders question why it has taken so long to address long-running decline in value of quality-related research funding

June 25, 2019
Source: Getty

Sector leaders have welcomed the universities minister’s signal of an increase in quality-related research funding in England, but have warned that “political dramas” are increasingly hampering the implementation of policy.

Appearing in front of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on 19 June, Chris Skidmore said that he hoped to announce a “significant uplift” in QR funding for English universities for 2019-20.

QR funding was worth £1.6 billion to campuses this year, but its real-terms value has fallen by 13 per cent since 2010.

However, Mr Skidmore cautioned that the UK was “in a very strange place politically” and acknowledged that he might no longer be in post after the Conservative leadership content.

Mark Smith, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, said that if the announcement materialised it would be “very, very good news” for the sector.

“It’s right to be cautious, because it hasn’t happened yet, but I think a lot of people will be extremely pleased to hear this support from the minister,” he told Times Higher Education.

Addressing the same committee at a previous hearing, Professor Smith told peers that Lancaster ran up a £56.4 million deficit on research not covered by grant funding for 2017-18. It used income sources such as international student fees and MBA courses to cross-subsidise its research costs.

QR funding is meant to help universities close this gap, but it was becoming “increasingly difficult to make up,” Professor Smith warned. If tuition fees are cut in the wake of the Augar review and replacement public funding is not forthcoming, the shortfall will get even bigger.

However, Professor Smith said that he had to question “why it has taken this long” to address the decline in QR funding.

“Irrespective of whether there are short-term issues distracting political agendas, I would like to know why it’s taken so long for this to even be debated,” he said. “We all know this is not just an issue that’s come up in the past few months, the ratio has been declining for a very long time.”

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland, pointed to the growing instability of UK governments.

“The recent period has been unusual for two specific and interconnected reasons,” he said. “One has to do with the weakness of the prime minister. In ‘normal’ times, the power of the prime minister will have a major influence on how quickly policies proceed through Whitehall.”

The second reason, Sir David said, was related to the recent spate of coalition or minority governments.

“Inevitably, decisions will take longer and are subject to greater political or policy compromise,” he said. “If that is becoming the default position for British governments, then political dramas may continue to have a negative impact on domestic as well as international funding.”

Addressing peers, Mr Skidmore said that he wanted “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,” the minister said.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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