Sleight of hand is no way to fund research

Research is paid for by legerdemain, and we should be honest about it if we want to correct funding imbalances and treat students fairly

November 9, 2017
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Research funding in the UK does not fully cover the costs of research. But you already knew that. The shortfall is largely clawed back from student fees. But you knew that, too.

Whether students themselves understand the extent of the problem, however, is less certain.

That’s not to suggest that they’re stupid or don’t appreciate that their tuition fees support a complex ecosystem.

Many will buy the argument that they benefit from research-informed teaching and won’t begrudge contributing to maintain a scholarly environment.

But what about the scale of the contribution? Do international students from outside the European Union, for example, know that they are each contributing an average £8,000 cross-subsidy to British research?

This figure is among a number of startling calculations set out in a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute that finds that UK research is underfunded to the tune of £3.3 billion. In contrast, teaching makes a surplus of about £1.3 billion.

These figures are important because, for the past few years, the government has been unrelenting in its criticism of universities that it considers to be short-changing students.

The suggestion that universities have focused on research to the detriment of teaching is not new and is not without foundation. In the high-fee era, holding feet to the fire is the right thing to do.

However, the figures revealed by Hepi point to a failure by government to make good on promises to cover the full economic cost of research over the past decade.

In this context, laying the blame for neglected teaching solely at the door of universities is rather disingenuous – seizing on higher tuition fees to plug a hole in research funding was as predictable as the collective rush to charge the £9,000 maximum. Where else was the money going to come from?

It’s worth noting that the cross-subsidy will be particularly significant at research-intensive institutions, given their scale and STEM focus.

This may help to explain, if not excuse, the poorer performance of some of these big beasts in the teaching excellence framework.

It also raises the question of whether pro vice-chancellors for research are right to be so obsessed with maximising their research income above all else.

As Phil Ward, deputy director of research services at the University of Kent, writes this week: “All are scrabbling to increase research income even if it ultimately results in a loss, particularly as research output affects their position in rankings and the research excellence framework.”

In a timely reminder of the power of the REF, we also report this week on the first wave of redundancies being linked directly to universities’ modelling for the next exercise in 2021.

The Hepi report makes a number of suggestions for tackling the structural problem with the way UK research is funded, as well as offering the usual reminders about the exceptional strength of the country’s research given the sums invested.

The broad conclusion that one might draw is that for all the talk of transparency and openness on performance metrics and the distribution of students’ money, the underfunding of research remains a skeleton in the cupboard (set jangling by Hepi a week too late for Halloween).

If students are to be given the data that they need to make informed decisions, then it’s essential that an honest appraisal of the cross-subsidy is part of that.

It’s equally important to be honest about the full economic costs of research if science and innovation are really at the “absolute core” of the UK’s economic future, to quote the universities minister Jo Johnson.

As David Coombe, director of research at the London School of Economics, puts it in his foreword to the Hepi report: “It cannot be sensible to muddle along, robbing Peter to pay Paul.

“The creation of two funding bodies in place of one (UKRI and OfS replacing Hefce) provides opportunity [to resolve the problem].

“Neither should preside over a funding model in which one underfunds and jeopardises research sustainability while the other risks exploiting students.”

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Lay out all the cards

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