srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


Leave a comment

Blue-skies thinking

by Paul Temple

A few years ago, a recently-retired Permanent Secretary talked to our MBA group at the Institute of Education, on a Chatham House rule basis, about policy-making in government. One of his remarks which stayed with me was about the increased speed of policy change during his professional lifetime. The key word here was “change” – as an end in itself. A newly-appointed Secretary of State, he explained, after a week or so in the job, would be invited to pop in to Number 10 for a cup of tea. “How’s it going, then?” he or she would be asked. If the answer was, “Oh, fine, thanks, everything seems to be running smoothly”, then they were toast. The correct answer was, “Well, I expected a few problems in taking over from X, but, really, I was shocked to discover how bad things are. But I’ve got a grip on it, and I’ll be making big changes.” Status around the Cabinet table depended on the boldness and scope of the policy changes your Department was pursuing. Effectiveness was a secondary matter.

The March 2020 budget included the commitment for the Government to “invest at least £800m” in a “blue-skies” funding agency, to support “high risk, high reward science”[1]. This seems to be the one possibly lasting legacy of Dominic Cummings’ reign in Downing Street: as I noted in my blog here on 6 February 2020, one of his stated goals was to create a UK version of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), famous for initiating the internet. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee reported on the Government’s plans on 12 February 2021[2], expressing puzzlement about the lack of detail on the proposed Agency’s remit since the proposal was unveiled in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech: “a brand in search of a product” was the Committee’s acid summing-up of the position. (Perhaps Cummings is being missed more than was predicted.) The Committee recommended that the “Haldane principle should not apply to how UK ARPA’s overall focus is determined. Ministers should play a role in shaping ARPA’s initial focus” but after that, it should be able “to pursue ‘novel and contentious’ research without case-by-case Ministerial approval” (p45). Which Minister(s) will have this focus-shaping responsibility is not yet clear.

The Committee obviously struggled to see what precisely an ARPA could do that UKRI, with perhaps some amended terms of reference, could not do. But of course the big difference is that an ARPA will be change – a shiny new initiative – and so much better for the Minister involved than tinkering with existing bits of governmental machinery. I expect they’ll find a way to launch the ARPA involving the Minister standing next to some fancy scientific kit wearing a hi-vis jacket and a hard hat.

As David Edgerton has pointed out[3], the so-called Haldane principle – that government should decide on overall research funding but that decisions on individual projects should be made by researchers – was never actually formulated by Haldane himself (Viscount Haldane, 1856-1928) and has a somewhat chequered history in science policy. Nevertheless, for much of the twentieth century, what was considered to be the Haldane principle underpinned the funding of UK research, with the idea of academic freedom so central to research funding that, as Edgerton says, it was “a principle that didn’t need to be written down”. That was then.

This began to change with the 1971 report by Lord Rothschild on The Organisation and Management of Government R&D[4], which, controversially, introduced the client/contractor relationship into public funding of research. This began the long and winding journey, via the Research Assessment Exercises, starting in in 1986, which led to the “impact statements” of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework in order to demonstrate proposals’ value for money. As Susan Greenfield once remarked[5], this was like saying that you’re only going to back winning horses.

Lyn Grove, whose PhD research[6] cast a fascinating light on why and how researchers approached their topics, quoted one of her respondents as saying, “the main thing is that you should try to do research that answers a question that is troubling you, even if it’s not yet troubling the rest of the world”: a pretty good summary of what blue-skies research should do. Is the ARPA blue-skies proposal going to take us, at least in part, back to a lost world, where researchers could pursue troubling ideas without considering their possible “impact” and where failure was accepted as an unavoidable aspect of research work? Has research policy, almost inadvertently, really run full-circle, driven by the incessant demand for novelty in policy-making? In the context of increasingly intrusive interventions by government into everyday university life (the idea of a university “woke warden”[7] would until recently have been a good joke), it somehow seems implausible. But we can always hope.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546


[1] House of Commons Science and Technology Committee website, visited 13 February 2021

[2] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmsctech/778/77803.htm

[3] Research Fortnight 12 December 2018

[4] Published with other material as HMSO (1971) A Framework for Government Research and Development Cmnd 4814. London: HMSO

[5] Greenfield, S (2011) ‘Research – the current situation and the next steps’ in The future of research in the UK – value, funding and the practicalities of rebalancing the UK economy London: Westminster Education Forum

[6] Grove, L (2017) The effects of funding policies on academic research Unpublished PhD thesis London: UCL Institute of Education

[7] briefing@wonkhe.com, 15 February 2021


Leave a comment

The VERY big financial picture for English universities?

By David Palfreyman

The Financial Sustainability Strategy Group, a dedicated bunch of HE nerds, has churned out 90 pages on the funding model of UK universities (February 2019), based on TRAC data (Transparent Approach to Costing, as compiled and collated since 1999). 

The core activity of teaching UK/EU undergraduates brings in c£13.25billion of income and covers its full economic cost (FEC). Within that overall picture, subjects vary in matching fee income to their FEC. Even after some (HEFCE) top-up grant subsidy for STEM, there is an internal transfer as subsidy to STEM from the cheap-to-teach and massively expanded subjects such as Law and Psychology, as well as the cheap but less expanded Humanities. International student fee income is c£4.5billion, with a third of such high fee-payers coming from China. The FEC is more than covered – leaving a 40% surplus transferred to subsidise research. 

Research generates c£9.25billion (£1.5billion as HEFCE QR and the rest as grants/contracts from various sources) but recovers only about 75% of its FEC. Research grants from Government cover 80% of their FEC, from industry and the Research Councils 75%, from the EU 65%, and from charities 60%. The overall loss on research will, therefore, vary according to the mix of research funding from these various sources. The Russell Group lose the most but are best placed to attract more international student fees. A thing called ‘Other Activities’ generates c£5.5billion and has a 15% profit on its FEC – again a source of subsidy for over-trading in under-priced research. 

What are the challenges and threats to this financial model? 

  1. Any wobble in the UK share of the global student market – especially since most universities in their financial projections make happy assumptions about growing their International fee income. 
  2. The hikes due in employer contributions to USS (c5%) and to TPS (c8%). 
  3. The freezing of the £9250 UK/EU UG fee.  
  4. The impact of (now unlikely?) Brexit on EU undergraduate numbers and their fee income – although the loss of EU research grants when every one involves a subsidy of 35% of the FEC would be no bad thing!
  5. Whether the Augar Review will recommend UK undergraduate fees should be cut from £9250 to, say, £7500 – and, even if it does, whether any Government ever implements the proposal.
  6. How those universities that have borrowed massive amounts will be able to service the interest payments as the above happens – let alone save up so as one day to repay the capital. 

In the current financial year English universities get c£1.5billion of funding from the OfS, mainly for the extra cost of STEM teaching over and above the £9250 tuition fees but also for various specialist programmes. Then some £1.6billion is shared out by UKRI to all UK universities as support for research (based on the REF). The OfS and UKRI funding is the job HEFCE used to do before the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act. So the direct taxpayer spend on HE is c£3billion pa, plus spending on support for teaching in UK universities beyond England – and not counting the cost of the subsidy to the student loans system, nor the financing of the various research councils. 

We await the Augar Review; meanwhile the supply of UK 18-year olds continues to decline until the early 2020s, which can be bad news for some universities, as the OfS warned in its analysis of Financial Sustainability of Higher Education Providers in England on 4 April 2019. The flow of EU students may reduce IF Brexit ever happens, and on the spending side institutions face significant increases in employer contributions to pensions. All in all, this is not a rosy picture in the short term and potentially grim in the medium term – unless, of course, the Augar Review gets lost in the context of Brexit-induced government chaos or the Treasury generously substitutes extra grant funding for any Augar reduction in the £9250. Unless indeed any ‘Brexit dividend’ leaves room for more public spending on HE as a call on taxpayer largesse alongside the NHS, social care for the elderly, the funding of schools, etc etc…

SRHE Treasurer David Palfreyman is Bursar, New College, Oxford, Director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (OxCHEPS), and a member of the Board of the Office for Students. He writes in a personal capacity.


Leave a comment

Doing good by wealth

By Paul Temple

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember when “millionaire” was used to describe someone who was almost unimaginably rich. Then, sometime towards the end of the last century, “billionaire” took its place – a reflection, probably, of both inflation and increasing disparities of wealth. Now, in America, being a billionaire is no big deal (540 of them, apparently) – you have to be a multibillionaire for people to take notice. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon boss, is worth $100bn. Globally, the top 1% own as much as the remaining 99%. (SRHE members need to tread a little carefully here: Continue reading