Lay out all the cards

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

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LEADER - John.gill@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

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 re­search­in­ten­sive 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.”

For all the talk of open­ness on per­for­mance met­rics and the dis­tri­bu­tion of stu­dents’ money, the un­der­fund­ing of re­search re­mains a skele­ton in the cup­board

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