Spending Review 2010 - HC 618Written evidence submitted by University and College Union (SR 07)

Summary

1. The University and College Union (UCU) is the largest trade union and professional association for academics, lecturers, trainers, researchers and academic-related staff working in further and higher education throughout the UK. We welcome the opportunity to submit evidence to the Select Committee’s inquiry into the impact of the science and research budget allocations for 2011–12 to 2014–15.

2. Our submission will focus mainly on recurrent and capital spending plans for higher education research and science, including the potential impact of the new tuition fee regime. It also addresses the increased concentration of research funding, growing government interference in the research policy process and the reduction in funding for equality and diversity projects in science, engineering and technology.

Recommendations

3. UCU recommends that part of the inquiry by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee includes provision by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) of a consistent like-for-like comparison of final outcome funding for the 2007 Science Budget in 2010–11, with the 2010–11 baseline data used in the 2010 Science Budget.

4. UCU is opposed to the further concentration of research funding and we call on both the funding and research councils to recognise and reward high quality research wherever it exists.

5. UCU calls on the select committee to investigate the process by which the “key national priorities” have been determined by the research councils.

6. UCU also recommends new legislation to protect the independence of research councils.

7. UCU calls for independent public scrutiny of the selection process of Web of Science and similar resources to ensure all approaches to academic research are given equal treatment.

8. UCU calls on BIS to restore core funding to the UK Resource Centre (UKRC) for Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET).

UCU Submission

Science budget

9. Following the 2010 spending review, BIS announced “The allocation of science and research funding 2011–12 to 2014–15” in December 2010. In summary, recurrent funding—including QR recurrent research funding for HE—is being held constant in cash terms, while capital funding— including for HEIs—is being cut significantly.

Recurrent spending

10. Recurrent (resource) spending in the Science Budget (covering Research Councils, recurrent HE research funding in England, national academies and other programmes) for the UK to 2014–15 is being held constant in cash terms at 2010–11 baseline levels of £4.575 billion (which means a real terms cut of 10.1% over the period, on the basis of current Treasury forecasts for the GDP deflator).

11. Recurrent funding for the Research Councils is to rise by 2.0% in cash terms, or be cut by −8.1% in real terms, over the period to 2014–15. The Medical Research Council will receive a 5.3% cash increase over the period, or a −4.8% real terms cut; the Arts and Humanities RC will receive a 2.3% cash cut (−12.4% in real terms); the remaining four RCs, and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) core programme, will get a 3.0% cash cut (−13.1% in real terms). STFC Cross-Council facilities funding and STFC International Subscriptions, will increase by 34% and 78% respectively in cash terms over the period.

12. Recurrent funding for research, ie QR funding, (allocated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) but included here in the Science Budget) will have a −3% cash cut (or −13.1% real terms cut) over the period to 2014–15, falling from £1.62 billion in 2010–11 to £1.57 billion in 2014–15.

13. Recurrent funding for the national academies will be cut slightly in cash terms to £86.5 million by 2014–15. Recurrent funding for other programmes (including Science and Society, and Foresight) is to be cut by almost half in all to £24 million by 2014–15, with the majority of the reduction falling in the Evidence and Evaluation programme.

Depreciation and impairment

14. The annual amount being written off under this heading rises from £130.7 million in 2010–11 to £180.4 million in 2014–15.

Capital spending

15. Total Science Budget capital spending will fall from £873 million in 2010–11 to £517 million in 2014–15, a 41% cash cut; the additional £100 million funding announced in the 2011 Budget effectively means a 29% cash cut. At the time of writing it was not clear whether this additional funding would have any impact on capital funding for higher education and the research councils, or whether it would be entirely “stand-alone” in relation to the four research centres the £100 million is supporting.

16. It should be noted that MRC capital funding is unusually high for 2010–11, but all RCs will see their capital funding cut significantly to 2014–15, and the AHRC will not get any capital funding. STFC funding will fall from £85.2 million to £64.8 million. Research capital for HEIs in the UK is also being severely reduced. Funding for the UK Space Agency will remain constant in cash terms. The Large Facilities Capital Fund will fluctuate over the period.

17. Capital funding figures are indicative for the three years from 2012–13 to 2014–15.

Analysis of spending plans

18. Although the outcome of the Science Budget under the 2010 Spending Review has been described in positive terms for science, with spending largely protected over the period to 2014–15, that appears to be an overly rosy view of the outcome.

19. First, recurrent or resource funding in the Science Budget is being held steady in cash terms, which means a real terms cut. Funding for the Research Councils as a whole will rise in cash terms but fall in real terms, because of the forecast impact of inflation. QR Research funding will be cut in cash terms. Only funding for the UK Space Agency will approach level pegging with inflation.

20. Second, there will be an overall 41% cut in capital funding in the Science Budget to 2014–15. And while UCU welcomes the announcement in the Budget for an additional £100 million for four science facilities, there will still be a 29% cut in capital funding. Just in one year, the cut in capital funding for higher education in England for 2011–12 has been announced by the Higher Education Funding Council as 58%. Although there has in the past decade been considerable investment in science and research infrastructure, not least in higher education institutions, this scale of reduction will have a damaging effect on UK science. It is also important to realise that many of our main economic competitors, such as the United States, China, Germany and France, are increasing investment in their scientific infrastructure.

21. Third, it is difficult to know whether there have been further reductions in the Science Budget between the December 2007 Science Budget, covering 2008–09 to 2010–11, and the December 2010 Science Budget (SB), covering 2011–12 to 2014–15. The final year of the 2007 SB was 2010–11; that year was also the baseline year for the 2010 SB. However, it is difficult to make a like-for-like comparison between the “old” 2010–11 and the “new” 2010–11; the latter includes QR research funding and the Space Agency, for example, which were not in the former.

22. In addition, the funding for 2010–11 may have been amended after the initial announcement in December 2007 because of subsequent funding cuts. It is possible that the changes in the level of funding for the 2010–11 baseline year may conceal further reductions in the new Science Budget. For example, the 2007 SB indicated an allocation of £412 million for resource funding for the BBSRC for 2010–11; the 2010 SB baseline year data for 2010–11 indicates resource funding of only £362 million for the BBSRC, suggesting a reduction in the 2010 baseline of £50 million somewhere in the intervening period. This would indicate a much bigger reduction for the BBSRC than shown in the 2010 SB.

23. UCU recommends that part of the inquiry by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee includes provision by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills of a consistent like-for-like comparison of final outcome funding for the 2007 Science Budget in 2010–11, with the 2010–11 baseline data used in the 2010 Science Budget.

24. Fourth, the 2010 SB says that efficiency savings following the 2010 Wakeham review of research financial sustainability, should deliver £324 million of savings in 2014–15, through implementing Full Economic Costing for RC funding in universities. Whether that level of saving can be delivered, let alone make good the cuts in the Science Budget remains to be seen. The cash cut in the 2010 SB in capital funding between 2010–11 and 2014–15 is £355 million, which is more than the Wakeham efficiency gain (or £255 million including the additional funding announced in the 2011 Budget). Once the impact of inflation is taken into consideration, the shortfall of the efficiency savings is increased.

25. Finally, the 2010 Science Budget covers the period when 80% of the recurrent grant for teaching in higher education institutions (HEIs) in England is being cut, while tuition fees are set to rise to a possible £9,000 a year. The remaining 20% of recurrent teaching funding is intended to support teaching in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as well as some other priority subjects needing support. Funding for teaching arts and humanities courses will be almost entirely dependent on the ability of these courses to attract fee-paying students.

26. The massive increase in tuition fees, combined with the government’s decision to cut teaching funding by 80% over the next three years, places the future of our universities at serious risk. It is a grossly irresponsible gamble which we believe will:

deter many potential students from aspiring to enter higher education;

lead to the closure of many courses and perhaps of whole institutions;

undermine quality of provision as institutions cut costs in the struggle to survive;

embed more deeply the existing hierarchy of status and resource among our universities and the matching pattern of social class participation; and

threaten the idea of the university as a community of scholars based on academic freedom and collegiality.

27. UCU is also concerned about the detrimental impact of the new funding regime on UK research capacity. First, there is the possibility of further cuts to the HEFCE research budget. David Willetts, for example, has suggested that “if the average of charges comes out higher than the £7,500..., we will have to consider the option of meeting that increased cost to the student finance budget by making offsetting reductions in the remaining HEFCE grant.”

28. Second, the Browne review and the new teaching funding regime reflect a highly ideological view of higher education. In particular, they are based on a view of students as “consumers” purchasing a “product” and seeking to maximise the “return” on their “investment”. Current policy also reflects a flawed notion of institutions competing in a market driven by variable price and quality. UCU believes that a consumerist agenda will have a detrimental impact on quality and standards in higher education, but also for research capacity in our universities and colleges. It is clear that higher tuition fees will produce greater student demands on lecturers’ time and therefore reduce the amount of time available to produce high-quality research. Given the increased workloads of staff as well and reductions in the numbers of academic posts, we fear that the opportunities to produce innovative research will be considerably reduced.

29. Finally, we are concerned about the impact of increased undergraduate fees on access to postgraduate study, particularly doctoral education. Increased student debt is likely to deter many qualified candidates from enrolling on doctoral programmes and therefore becoming the researchers and scientists of the future. Despite the government’s “social mobility strategy”, current fee policy is likely to result in a more socially and economically exclusive academic profession.

Concentration of research funding

30. The Government’s allocation of research and science funding in the CSR period should be analysed alongside its major policy objectives. One of the most significant is to concentrate research funding in a small number of universities. For example, in the recent HEFCE allocations to higher education institutions, research which received a 2* (quality that is recognised internationally) in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise is having its funding cut. The weighting for 2* research is being reduced from 1.0 to 0.294, and the funding re-allocated to 3* and 4* research (internationally excellent and world-leading respectively) as HEFCE implements the government’s desire for greater research funding concentration. It is likely that this reduction will mean that developing research potential in the newer universities is disproportionately affected.

31. UK research funding is already highly concentrated in a relatively small number of institutions. Further concentration of core research funding would carry with it the risk of reduced research capacity for some regions, greater difference in experiences for students and a reduction in the diversity of the UK's research base. For example, the policy of ‘more concentration’ will disrupt the developing research agenda in post-1992 higher education institutions.

32. Similar policies are being enacted by the UK Research Councils. For example, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has restricted doctoral training support to pre-1992 institutions. The exclusion of all post-1992 universities from the new ESRC Framework underestimates the research capacity of these institutions and fails to recognise their strengths and contributions within the social sciences.

33. UCU is opposed to the further concentration of research funding and we call on both the funding and research councils to recognise and reward high-quality research wherever it exists.

Increasing micromanagement of research

34. UCU is concerned about increasing government interference in determining the priorities of the research councils. Of course, the idea that research councils are free to set their own priorities ceased to be true in practice some years ago. However, the current administration appears to be going further than previous ones in using its control of the finances to ensure compliance with a political agenda. For example, we are alarmed at recent allegations that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) have been pressured into making the “Big Society” a priority within its communities and civic values “strategic research area”. We call on the select committee to investigate the process by which the “key national priorities” have been determined by the research councils. UCU also recommends new legislation to protect the independence of research councils.

35. In recent years there has also been a big push by government departments and quangos to force academics to focus on the economic impact of their research. The research councils have led the way on this agenda. Applicants for research council grants now have to submit an “impact summary”, answering questions about who might benefit from the research and how an economic return could be secured. Recent research council strategy documents suggest a bigger role for the “impact” agenda in the current CSR period.

36. Similar developments are planned for the funding council allocations. In March the four UK funding bodies announced that the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) will include a 20% weighting for “research impact”. Despite the changes resulting from the REF pilot studies, UCU and academics are concerned that the “impact” proposals will undermine support for basic research across all disciplines as well as disproportionately disadvantaging research in the arts and humanities. The new proposals will also add greatly to the bureaucratic nature of the research assessment process.

37. A related issue concerns the growing use of “bibliometrics” as a means of assessing the quality of research outputs. UCU is concerned about the over-reliance on commercial databases such as the Web of Science, which necessarily privilege certain types of journals and therefore approaches. We call for independent public scrutiny of the selection process of Web of Science and similar resources to ensure all approaches to academic research are given equal treatment.

Equality and diversity

38. UCU is concerned about the impact of the higher education cuts on equality in the sector. Our biggest concerns relate to the 80% reduction in the teaching grant and the near trebling of tuition fees, and the disproportionate impact of this on women and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

39. However, one of the least well-known outcomes of the science budget is the abolition of funding for the UK Resource Centre (UKRC) for Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET). The UKRC is the key body offering advice, services and policy regarding the under-representation of women in SET. The organisation has a good track record in working with employers, unions, educational institutions, and women scientists to improve the gender balance in SET workplaces. UCU believes that the abolition of its funding will have a negative impact on the UK’s SET sector and for gender equality. We call on BIS to restore core funding to the UKRC.

Conclusion

40. Universities and research centres are a vital part of our economic infrastructure, and generate extensive employment, output and GDP. Globalisation, competition with the emerging economies such as China and India (both investing heavily in higher education and research) and the emergence of the “knowledge economy” all suggest a more important economic role for higher education and the need for increased investment. In our view, the BIS document (“The allocation of science and research funding 2011–12 to 2014–15”) fails to meet these challenges.

19 April 2011

Prepared 7th November 2011