Spending Review 2010 - HC 618Written evidence submitted by De Montfort University (SR 05)

1. As a higher education institution, De Montfort University is justifiably proud of its achievements. In the RAE 2008, more than 50% of our research was rated as “internationally excellent” or “world-leading” and we view research as central to our mission. Research underpins all our teaching and enables engagement with business, public and the third sectors. As a consequence of effective business engagement, more than 170 of DMU’s taught courses are accredited by professional bodies and within six months of completing their course, 98% of our postgraduate students are in full-time employment working for companies as diverse as KPMG, Rolls-Royce, The Daily Telegraph, Nike, Habitat and the NHS.

2. Whilst most of our research is internationally excellent or world leading, De Montfort University is research rich rather than research intensive. However, the importance of research to the character and quality of the academy is explicitly acknowledged throughout the institution, and DMU is research ambitious—constantly seeking new and better ways to enable research and improve quality. This is delivered both through the recruitment of world leading researchers to add to our knowledge base and culture, and through co-ordinated central processes to facilitate research—most recently manifested by the creation (at the end of 2009) of a central research development office which included amongst its ranks experienced academic researchers to advise and mentor our scholars. We therefore feel we are well placed to reflect on some of the specific issues raised by the science and research budget allocation, and welcome this opportunity to comment on these areas in the following paragraphs.

3. The flat settlement to the science and research budget represents a real terms cut, and will have far reaching consequences for the HEI sector as a whole. We believe that there will still be opportunities for our researchers to excel in the current funding landscape and in these terms we believe that the science and research budget allocation has achieved its aim of maintaining the relative protection of science and research. The reiteration of the Haldane principle and the dual support system alleviated many of the concerns around the sector about seismic shocks to the funding landscape, and the continuation of HEIF funding was welcomed by many institutions. However, three re-calculations of the QR formula within a 12 month period, changed parameters for the allocation of HEIF funds and the abolition of small grants under the expectation that HEIs will fund small projects from their QR allocation have major financial implications for HEIs, and the speed with which these changes have been introduced have given HEIs little scope to adopt new practices.

4. The abolition of small grants with immediate effect will have a major impact on the research undertaken at DMU, and the effects will not necessarily be felt evenly across the institution. Within DMU the majority of our QR allocation is devolved to the faculties in proportion to their RAE scores and faculties have control over how most of this income is spent to support the research environment. Much of this spend is already committed for this academic year. If we look at DMU’s external research income by faculty over the 2009–10 academic year and define a small grant as £7,500 (the upper cut-off for the British Academy Small Grants scheme), then across the academy the number of small grant awarded as a total of all awards in each faculty was as follows:

36% to Art and Design.

48% to Business and Law.

47.5% to Health and Life Science.

55% to Humanities.

23% to Technology.

18% to specialist research institutes (the Institute for Energy and Sustainable Development and the Institute of Creative Technologies).

Whilst we understand that small grants are expensive to administer and place large burdens on the peer review system, the speed of these changes makes it difficult for us as an institution to respond in a pro-active and timely manner. We have already launched internal project seed-corn funding and research sabbatical schemes partially to address these changes, but a move to a more formal internal small grants provision will take time for us to implement and we are anticipating a substantial funding gap in the short term, which we have to hope will not impact too dramatically on our research capability. We find this particularly disappointing given the large concentration of internationally excellent and world leading researchers* housed in our Humanities faculty, for whom small grants have been the predominant source of funding. (* For example, in RAE 2008, 40% of our English Language and Literature submission was rated as world leading, giving DMU’s English department the same ranking as that of Cambridge University).

5. The likely withdrawal of QR funding from internationally recognised research (2*) is a concern. Whilst this will affect DMU less than many other institutions, we believe that some level of funding should be maintained in an increasingly difficult funding landscape. The removal of QR support for internationally recognised (2*) research raises concerns about the sustainability of UK research quality in the longer term. Even world leading researchers have a mix of outputs and many internationally recognised (2*) outputs are strong academically. Many aspects of improvements in science and research are incremental rather than revolutionary and the significance of a piece of research may not be fully apparent in the RAE/REF timeframe. This is the natural pattern of how research evolves and provides the bedrock upon which world leading research is built. The imposed divide seems very artificial and counterintuitive. Successive RAEs have also demonstrated the widely diffused nature of research excellence in the UK university system. This means that the apparent moves to greater concentration of funding on a very limited number of institutions is likely to be counter-productive, and to destroy many of the nuclei of research quality and innovation within the system. The need to maintain the principle of research excellence being funded wherever it is found is fundamental to the future integrity of the research base. The withdrawal of QR funding from internationally recognised (2*) departments would have a disproportionate impact upon these small pockets of excellence. In some subjects there is a physical infrastructure argument for concentration of funding; however, we believe that the recommendation in the Wakeham review that institutes share facilities is a more appropriate response solution to this problem, and we look forward to receiving further information about how this will work in practice.

6. The increasing moves towards fewer, larger grants also leaves us with fears for the next national cohort of researchers, and the UK’s future as a world leader in research. Again, the logic in terms of administrative and peer review burdens seems obvious. However, very few researchers will be trusted to manage a large grant if they have no track record of independent project management. Historically, early career researchers tended to gain these skills through a mix of collaborative projects and independent small grants. Whilst the institutional provision of small grants will go some way to restore this balance, it may be at the expense of creativity as HEIs are most likely to fund those projects that fit best with their current research strategies, at the expense of the risky and radical research ideas that tend, in the long term, to be the basis of true innovation and economic impact. The funding landscape post the science and research budget allocation seems to make the already difficult life of an early career researcher even more challenging. The increased number of early career fellowships will offset this for only a very small number of early career researchers.

7. We are also concerned by the removal of PhD studentships from research council grant applications. PhD studentships have a different project structure and scale of ambition, and often provide the perfect opportunity to extend a project into a new and interesting area, or to build the solid foundations for future, more risky research. RCUK funded projects, which have gone through rigorous peer review, offer some the best research projects for state of the art PhD training and consortium projects (which account for a very large proportion of our project PhDs) afford training environments that are top class and often unique, especially for cross-disciplinary research. The forced dissociation of PhD studentships from other projects may be counter productive. This disconnection may also have a negative impact on completion rates—historically we have seen much better completion rates from grant holding students than from self-funded students. In light of the moves by several research councils towards the Doctoral Training Centre format, the opportunity for the smaller research centres to be awarded research council studentships becomes even more limited. Consequently those centres of excellence which were recognised in RAE2008 will become less able to pass on their research qualities to the next generation of researchers.

8. Knowledge transfer partnerships (KTPs) are a fundamental part of DMU’s research strategy, being an essential component of our belief in both research informed teaching and user informed research. In 2009–10 DMU was running 18 KTPs. Whilst we understand that the major structural changes experienced by the TSB will take time to resolve, and the need to present a full and complete strategic plan only once it has been agreed, the delays in processing submitted KTP applications and uncertainty over the precise nature of the programme going forward have been disquieting for some of our commercial partners, and may have had a negative impact on our abilities to engage with these businesses in future. Greater clarity about the future of KTPs would have been helpful, and a commitment to maintain similar levels of investment greatly appreciated.

9. The adoption of the conclusions of the Wakeham review (that individual HEIs should reduce their overheads by a set efficiency savings rather than reducing the overall intervention rate of the individual research councils) is a fair way to help ensure the financial sustainability of HEIs. The implementation plan recently released by RCUK seems to have considered the significant issues facing HEIs and to be striving to be as fair as possible to the research community. However, once again the speed of implementation is breathtaking—the level of cuts was announced on 31/3/11 and will be implemented on 1/7/11. Whilst we put in place plans for various scenarios following the announcement of the adoption of the Wakeham review recommendations in the comprehensive spending review, the reality (in the face of all the other cuts to the sector) may be more complex than we anticipated.

10. When the Wakeham efficiency savings are combined with the mandatory quality assurance processes and demand management strategies that the research councils plan to impose, the costs of preparing submissions for funding applications will increase significantly for HEIs. This will necessitate a reduction in the number of applications individual HEIs can support but will drive up the quality of those applications submitted. Whilst the driving force behind the imposition of demand management and mandatory quality assurance is to reduce the number of applications, a consequence of improving quality at the point of submission will be that a greater proportion of high quality applications will not receive funding. This in itself becomes an issue if the funding bodies decide to blanket ban the re-submission of all unsuccessful proposals.

11. In conclusion, the science and research budget allocations (and the subsequent re-organisation of funding strategies by the various funding agencies) represent both a challenge and an opportunity to the knowledge base. When the science and research budget allocation was announced the HEI sector rapidly acknowledged that, in the current period of financial austerity, a flat settlement was generous and reflected the important role that HEIs play in creating new knowledge, maintaining the UK’s international standing and reputation, and creating wealth. However, given the need to invest in innovation to drive economic growth there is a strong argument to be made that this budget should be one of the first to be re-assessed once the national and international economic climate changes.

Declaration of Interests

De Montfort University is a research institution based in the East Midlands and was placed 63rd (upper-middle table) in the 2008 RAE exercise. As such the science and research budget allocation will have a substantial impact on our ability to create and transfer knowledge.

18 April 2011

Prepared 7th November 2011