The work of the UK research councils - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (RCUK 03)


  Further to Mr Phil Willis' letter dated 20 October 2009 in which he raises a number of queries on behalf of the Science and Technology Select Committee regarding AHRC's Annual Report I am please to provide you with the following information in direct response to his questions:

1.   What plans has the AHRC to evaluate the new peer review arrangements set out at page 8 of its Annual Report?

The new peer review systems arising out of the AHRC's Review of Decision-Making Structures project were introduced in January 2009. One of the key features was the move to open deadlines and four non-standing prioritisation panels with membership drawn from the Peer Review College. Since January the Block Grant Partnerships and Collaborative Doctoral Awards schemes, and two complete cycles of the Research Grants scheme have been run under the new systems, with feedback from participants generally being very positive.

Given that the new systems are still in their relative infancy, it is not intended to undertake a full-scale review until the processes have been in place for at least two years, although it is anticipated that the AHRC's internal audit programme will undertake an interim review at an earlier stage to measure emerging benefits. In the meantime, the AHRC's new Advisory Board—which meets four times a year—has an ongoing role in monitoring the performance of the Council's peer review systems and the Peer Review College, to ensure quality and effectiveness. This includes reviewing panel meetings and outcomes to date, as well as monitoring the Peer Review College's membership (to ensure an appropriate spread in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, institutional and subject coverage) and performance both in terms of the quality of reviews, and trends in relation to grading patterns across subject areas. The number of complaints and appeals in respect of peer review processes in comparison with previous years will also be monitored on an annual basis.

2.   What was the outcome of the review of the Institute of Historical Research "knowledge transfer" project set out at page 25 of the Annual Report?

  "Using Archival Sources to Inform Contemporary Policy Debates"—this is a Collaborative Research Training Scheme award, funded under the National route. The award is for a total of £38,388, and is a collaboration between the Institute of Historical Research, the National Archives and the History and Policy Group.

The aim of the project is to provide doctoral students with KT skills in identifying and using appropriate archival sources to enable them to use history to inform contemporary policy debates and develop good practice in policy-making and implementation. It aims to:

    — Give students an insight into the range of archival material available.

    — Through case studies, demonstrate how archival sources can be used to illuminate current issues and inform policy debate and formulation.

    — Through case studies, demonstrate how archival material can provide practical lessons about how best to implement policy to achieve desired outcomes, and to avoid repeating past mistakes.

    — Offer students practical suggestions about how to use their research to influence policy-makers and opinion formers.

  Over two years, the programme aims to equip 80 students with new awareness, skills and confidence, not only to benefit them and their research, but to build a new generation of historians who see the understanding of history as a key aspect of developing better public policy in the future.

  The project has been running for just over a year and is a two year award, running until 30 September 2010. AHRC will have review information at the end of the project.

3.   What is the Council's view of the quality of services received from the Shared Services Centre?

  AHRC is currently receiving a transactional HR service from the RCUK Shared Services Centre Ltd. This service went live on 6 July 2009. In November 2009 AHRC is transferring its Payroll services over to the SSC, Finance transactional services will be going live in April 2010 and Grants processing services in October 2010.

Staff across the organisation are getting to grips with the new Oracle system and new ways of working and as you would expect with any project of this size understandably there been a few initial difficulties. None the less, AHRC is pleased with the quality of service it has received from the RCUK SSC Ltd and looks forward to continue working closely with SSC Ltd colleagues in ensuring effective delivery of transactional services.

4.   How many staff will be moving to Swindon, staying in London and leaving the Council?

  AHRC is currently based in Bristol and the entire office will be relocated to Swindon towards the end of June 2010, with no residual staff based in Bristol. AHRC are currently consulting with staff and unions over the relocation and it is expected that a clearer view about numbers of staff coming to Swindon will be known in the New Year. AHRC management are hopeful of retaining 50-60 of its staff during this period.

5.   What proportion of invoices in September was paid within 10 days?

93.2% of invoices were paid within 10 days during September 2009. A total of 161 invoices were paid in the month with 150 paid within 10 days.

6.   The Committee requests a note explaining the risk identified at page 58 of the Annual Report concerning budgeting and forecasting processes and the steps taken to deal with the risk?

A review carried out by KPMG during 2008-09 highlighted a potential risk of the AHRC not effectively budgeting and forecasting future commitments. The process at that time involved different members of staff using separate spreadsheet models which weren't integrated. This risk could be seen as materialising as the AHRC did overspend in 2008-09 (see response to question 10 below).

In response to the report, the AHRC restructured some roles within finance which freed up a member of staff to design and build an integrated forecasting model which has enabled the AHRC to consider commitment planning scenarios over a five year window, by programme and by delivery mechanism (responsive mode, targeted calls etc); the consideration of individual programme spend profiles and start dates; the capturing of actual spend data within-year, combined with future spend forecasts to allow robust monitoring of the year-end position; and the holding of a common data repository for the various financial reports that the AHRC is required to produce.

  The model was demonstrated to Council on 11 December 2008 and received a positive response and is now being used regularly when planning for future years' spend and commitments.

7.   What problems have Programme Assurance Visits identified in 2008-09 and 2009-10?

  The RCUK Funding Assurance Programme (FAP) provides assurance over the direct costs and the control environment for administering and managing grants at research organisations (ROs). The programme is managed by the RCUK FAP assurance unit, which is hosted by BBSRC. Experienced staff from relevant Research Councils also contribute to assurance work on visits to ROs. During 2008-09, there were 23 programme assurance visits to institutions, which resulted in no unsatisfactory assurance ratings. The 2009-10 schedule of visits is underway and will be completed by the financial year end. At present, there have been three out of 14 visit reports issued and there have been no unsatisfactory assurance ratings so far.

A further assurance programme run during this period has addressed the compliance with TRAC costing methodology, used to calculate the full economic cost of research. During 2008-09, three institutions were placed in sanction as a result of specific areas of non-compliance with TRAC methodology, and all of these institutions had their sanctions lifted at the end of the three month period following a successful follow up visit. During 2009-10, one institution was placed in sanction for non-compliance with TRAC methodology.

  Within the review of TRAC, the three issues which were identified most frequently were the operation of the time allocation survey, the calculation of the infrastructure adjustment and the ability of institutions to understand their costs including operating adequate reasonableness checks of the financial information.

8.   The Committee requests a detailed breakdown explaining why staff and Council Members' Costs increased by over £700,000 from 2007-08 to 2008-09

  The increase in staff and Council member costs can be explained through a variety of factors outlined in the table below:
Additional temporary staff due to the demands of the SSC implementation £170K
Pay rise for staff and Council members £154K
Redundancy costs£220K
Interim Senior management charges£50K
Agency costs£151K

9.   What does "pay modernisation in universities" on page 71 mean?

Pay Modernisation refers to the Higher Education Role Analysis (HERA) job evaluation scheme which universities started to implement in 2005, with the aim of moving all university staff to a nationally negotiated 51 Point Payscale by 2007. Universities worked to different timescales in implementing the new payscales and it was identified at an early stage that this would affect Research Grant applications to the Research Councils as universities would not be in a position to accurately reflect their potential staff cost requirements over the life of a grant. RCUK, after discussions with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, agreed to meet any additional staff costs arising from pay modernisation for Research Grant applications made between 10 March 2005 and 31 July 2007. Universities would be able to claim the additional costs at the end of the grant at the reconciliation stage. AHRC has been accruing for the potential costs for grants that were applied for in this timescale and that have yet to finish.

10.   The Committee requests a note setting out the level of End Year Flexibility the Council could call upon at the start of the year 2008-09, the amount drawn down during the year and the balance carried forward at the end of the year
Revised EYF 1 April 20081.760
2008-09 adjusted published allocations 106.492
2008-09 provisional outturn110.263
2008-09 under/(over)spend-3.771
EYF 1 April 2009-2.011

AHRC has plans in place to submit a balanced budget at the end of the Spending Review Period (March 2011) with a £0 EYF.

If you have any further queries please do not hesitate to contact me.

Professor Rick Rylance

AHRC Chief Executive

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