Spending Review 2010 - HC 618Written evidence submitted by the University Alliance (SR 29)

1. University Alliance represents 23 major, business-focused universities that are driving economic growth through world-leading research, innovation and enterprise. Alliance universities educate over 25% of all UK students and achieve some of the highest graduate-level employment rates. Incorporating five of the UK’s 10 largest universities, Alliance universities offer a research-informed, academic learning environment and a culture of innovation and enterprise, empowering the next generation of graduates who will help deliver growth to the UK economy.

2. Alliance universities are central to the UK’s innovation-driven economy, driving growth in new sectors and markets through their delivery of high-quality, graduates, science and research. Alliance universities maintain a revolving door with business to help ensure graduate employers get innovative and thoughtful, professionally accredited graduates with the right skills to help grow their businesses. They play a leading role in regional growth and regeneration, working with partners from local communities, the UK and internationally, to ensure that the benefits of higher education and more specifically their entrepreneurial approach have a direct economic impact.

3. Through evidence-based policy and research, University Alliance and our member universities aim to improve policymaking in higher education to the benefit of the UK economy and society.

4. University Alliance recognises the difficult financial climate and is encouraged that the Government does not plan to cut the science and research budget to the extent that it could damage the health of the UK research base. We therefore accept the budget allocations as an acceptable settlement that should maintain the UK’s status as a world-leader in research. However we have a number of concerns about the methods for which the remaining money is distributed as we set out below.

Making the Best Use of Public ResourceFunding Excellence wherever it Exists

5. University Alliance believes that through this settlement and in these uncertain economic times, it has never been more important to ensure that our scarce resources are used to fund excellent research wherever it is found. We believe that funding research on this basis is the only method that will ensure the sustainability and health of the UK research base.

6. Maintaining the UK’s position as a world leader in research is crucial to the future health of the higher education sector and the economy. In this time of restricted funding it is equally crucial that the principles that have underpinned this success are not abandoned and that the evidence-base surrounding the funding of research is not ignored.

7. As such we welcome the Government’s direction to HEFCE that Quality Related funding should be directed selectively on the basis of internationally excellent (3* and higher) research. This approach is based on clear evidence that this is the best way to maximise the impact of public investment.

No Evidential Basis for Funding Based on Critical Mass Outside some of the Physical Sciences

8. It is based on this same evidence that we raise concerns about moves to concentrate either research funding or PhD provision based on critical mass as hinted at in the BIS statement:

The Science and Research funding allocations will support the very best research, by further concentrating resources on research centres of proven excellence and with the critical mass and multi-disciplinary capacity to address national challenges and compete internationally.

9. Whilst we support the selective funding of excellence, it is simply not the case that excellence always follows a critical mass. We accept that in some disciplines, particularly in science, that a critical mass is necessary to achieve world-leading research. But this is not the case across the majority of disciplines.

10. We know that there is a relationship between volume and excellence in some of the physical sciences because of “scale and costly kit” where there are genuine affordability constraints. Outside the physical sciences, however, the spread of peaks of world-leading research excellence across the sector demonstrates that critical mass is not relevant.

11. Research undertaken for HEFCE as part of their “Fundamental Review of Research Policy and Funding” proved, nearly a decade ago, that there is no relationship between volume and excellence outside some of the physical sciences—in the UK or internationally. The 2008 RAE results showed an even greater dispersal of excellence across the sector in some disciplines. The Final Report to HEFCE of the Higher Education Policy Unit, University of Leeds, in considering the “role of selectivity and the characteristics of excellence” found that:

“The effect of size is significant in most science-based subjects, but for performance of international quality it is evidently not the only factor. For Mathematics, however, there is no proven relationship between the size of the research unit and the quality of its output: concepts of critical mass do not apply in this area.”

“The scaling pattern does not hold in Mathematics, in the arts and humanities or for some areas in the social sciences. It is also clear that there are a number of small units performing at the very highest levels. Output is generally more concentrated in science than engineering, which may be due to historical growth patterns. This emphasises the need to understand both the research system, its components (peak and platform), and the discipline-specific context.”

12. We would welcome great clarity from the Government on their policy in relation to this issue.

Maintaining the Distinct Purpose and Effectiveness for HEIF Funding

13. University Alliance welcomes the Government’s drive to create economic impact across all areas of the Science and Research budget. Our member institutions play a critical role on a regional and national level on supporting the economy and driving its growth.

14. The UK’s innovation ecosystem depends far less on the traditionally sought after technology transfer and far more upon innovation in management, business process improvement and better marketing; innovation that may owe less to traditional research and development than to new ways of building relationships between business and academia and of incubating new skills and knowledge. The current mechanisms of measuring how universities contribute to innovation in the UK struggle to encapsulate the rapidly expanding role and impact of universities.

15. It is for that reason that we share concerns about focussing HEIF funding too closely on income generation as the only measure of effective KE performance. Whatever the final balance of metrics decided upon we must ensure that HEIF funding is able to support and reward a breadth of KE activities as distinct from those supported by QR funding.

Efficiency

16. University Alliance is broadly supportive of the drive to create future efficiencies in the research budget. We recognise that RCUK have had to make significant savings but we support the principles underpinning the Wakeham review. We believe that efficiencies made along these principles will result in savings without harming the health of UK research.

27 April 2011

Prepared 7th November 2011