Archive for March 19, 2009

Hard Cash

Posted in Science Politics, Uncategorized with tags , , on March 19, 2009 by telescoper

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) has finally announced its cash allocations for Welsh Universities over the period 2009-10. The settlement of English Universities (produced by HEFCE) has been public for quite a while already.

On the back of a poor showing in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) by Cardiff University we were all braced for a cut in our recurrent grant, which has indeed turned out to be the case. Our total grant for teaching and research has been cut in cash terms by about 1.3% with most of the hit coming in the QR money that was allocated according to the RAE. This cut amounts to losing about £2M from the University’s budget and, including inflation, is more like a 3% cut in real terms.

That sounds bad enough (even the fact that there is a minus sign is pretty poor), but there are exacerbating factors on top. First, the National Pay Agreement has given University staff large pay rises over the past year or so. Given the large fraction of a University’s budget that goes on salaries, this means that a positive change in the grant would have been required to keep pace with the increased cost of staff wages. I’m ignoring other sources of income, of course, such as external research grants and endowments but the latter are less important to us in Cardiff than they are, for example, in Oxbridge. Moreover, the recent dire performance of the various University pension schemes has led to the proposal – virtually certain to be agreed – that the employers’ contributions should rise by 2%. This also has a big effect on the University’s budget.

The particular implications of all this for the School of Physics & Astronomy are yet to be worked out in detail, but a safe working assumption is an effective cut in our own budget of about 10%. Unless we can drastically increase our external income then some of our planned activity will have to be curtailed. With STFC having a budget crisis of its own, there seems little prospect of increasing our income from that source so it looks like we’re in for a challenging time.

There were winners in Wales, notably Swansea which has enjoyed a cash increase of about 10%, and some even bigger losers than Cardiff such as Lampeter, already a struggling institution, which has to endure a cut of 9% in its HEFCW grant.

The funding allocations for English Universities have been handled a bit differently to Wales, partly by the introduction of transitional relief to assuage the pain of some large Universities who would have suffered large drops in grant. HEFCE also ring-fenced funding for Science Technology and Medicine (STEM) subjects which helped out places like Imperial College, who would otherwise have had a cut; as it is, their allocation is up by 0.1% in cash. There was no attempt by HEFCW to implement this type of damage limitation, although it did put some extra money into STEM subjects from “other resources”.

It’s interesting to note that Cardiff’s share of the QR funds is actually steady at about 50% which is roughly where as a result of the previous exercise. Application of the English formula in 2001 would have given Cardiff 75% of the QR funding in Wales, which was decided to be politically unacceptable so it was capped at 50%. I think HEFCW used the English formula this time because it kept Cardiff at the level HEFCW wanted it at…

Furthermore the settlement for England as a whole is a tad more generous than Wales. The overall cash settlement for Welsh Universities is up by about 1.66% over last year, whereas that for England is up by 4.1%. The origin of the difference is in the QR funds which in England are up by 7.7% in cash terms but rise by a much lower amount in Wales. This isn’t HEFCW’s fault of course: it has to work with the funds allocated to it by the Welsh Assembly.

Among the English Universities to have done well overall are two that I used to work at. The University of Nottingham has a total grant that has increased by about 9.6% and Queen Mary has trumped that with 10.4%. However, another of my previous haunts, the University of Sussex is one of the few English institutions to have a cash cut like Cardiff’s. Their total grant is cut by 1.4%, which is a tough deal for them. I think the ring-fencing of STEM subjects probably hasn’t helped Sussex as much as some other institutions, as its traditional research strengths are in Arts and Humanities. The biggest loser in England is the troubled Thames Valley University, which has a cash cut of 11.7%. Ouch!

I think I’ve made it clear (here, here, here, here and here) that I think the RAE was a bit of a botch generally and that Physics was particularly badly done by. The outcome has certainly hit Cardiff School of Physics & Astronomy hard. I still can’t understand why our research was rated so poorly. Nature papers with over a thousand citations were not graded 4* by the panel, or at least not when submitted from Cardiff.

When I moved here, I had dreams of building up a nice little cosmology group but it looks like there’s not much chance of this happening, unless we find some way of getting some more money into Welsh physics. Welsh University Physics Alliance anyone?

But the cards have now been dealt. At least we know what sort of hand we’ve got. Now we have to get on playing it as best we can.