Budget Bombshell

As pointed out by Roger Highfield, there’s some grim news for science and higher education  in today’s pre-budget report by Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling.

In Chapter 6 of the document there is a  list of cuts to be made in public expenditure as a response to the worse-than-expected state of the public finances. Among them you can find a whopping

£600 million from higher education and science and research budgets from a combination of changes to student support within existing arrangements; efficiency savings and prioritisation across universities, science and research; some switching of modes of study in higher education; and reductions in budgets that do not support student participation;

The first means students will suffer because of cuts to the support they will be offered. “Efficiency savings” means what it always means, reducing the level of service to save money. I’ve no idea what “switching of modes of study” means, but I guess it has something to do with having a larger proportion of part-time students. The last bit is completely lost on me. If anyone reading this can translate it into English for me I’d be very grateful.

It is clear that the Research Councils will have to find their share of the efficiency savings. Since the one most directly relevant to me, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is already on the ropes after a series of financial catastrophes this does not augur well the level of cuts expected to be announced in the next few days as a result of their recent prioritisation exercise:

The primary focus of Council’s latest meeting was a review of the programme prioritisation now underway. The chair and deputy chair of Science Board, Professors Jenny Thomas and Tony Ryan, discussed the process of input from advisory panels to the Physical And Life Sciences Committee (PALS) and the Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Science Committee (PPAN), and thence to Science Board which will meet 7-8 December to finalise its recommendations to the Council meeting on 15 December. Council agreed the importance of informing the community as quickly as possible after its meeting of the outcome.

So we can expect to hear next week who’s for the shredder. I’m sure STFC were making contigency plans for different possible outcomes, but I’m pretty sure this was close to their worst possible case. Many of us are going to have a very depressing Christmas, as the axe is sure to fall on the astronomy programme in extremely brutal fashion. The cuts will be deep and the injuries sustained will leave scars that will last for many years. The pre-budget statement shows that there’s going to be a long dark tunnel for British science with very little evidence of light at the end of it.

It won’t just be astronomy research that suffers, of course. The Higher Education sector is feeling the pinch already, with redundancies already looming at several institutions. You can place your bets as to how many departments will close over the next year or two, and how many talented scientists will be moving abroad to secure their future rather than stay in a country that seems to place so little value on science.

21 Responses to “Budget Bombshell”

  1. Tim Harries Says:

    Thank the lord we own 83% of RBS though. Otherwise where would we be.

  2. Paul Roche Says:

    Sadly the imminent departure of a large number of talented scientists from the UK to overseas institutes doesn’t seem to be raising the “concerns” that the government/financial sector seem to think will accompany the prospect of a load of bankers (and that’s a word where I’d love a Freudian typo to slip in…) heading off to earn their bonuses elsewhere. Apparently there is a transfer market in bankers, whereas in science it’s “just” a brain-drain…

    Can someone calculate how many bankers bonuses would be required to fund a typical physics department? I suspect it wouldn’t be a very large number…I can probably do it without taking my socks off….

  3. Haley Gomez Says:

    Crap. I wonder if they’ll make us do the three year degree in two years (Jan-Dec)?

    For some weird reason, a lot of things have gone wrong for me today and this tops it off nicely. Bye-bye future prospects?

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Huw Waters, Peter Coles and Donald Pretari, Haley Gomez. Haley Gomez said: RT @telescoper: Budget Bombshell: http://wp.me/pko9D-175 […]

  5. Sigh, and there was me starting to enjoy my PhD….

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    “Efficiency savings” in a university system that has been underfunded for decades means cuts.

    “Reductions in budgets that do not support student participation” could mean anything. It might even simply mean “research”.

    The Campaign for Science and Engineering has issued a press release that seems rather restrained given the circumstances.

    As a former scientist, I sometimes wonder how much more I might have accomplished in life had I been born in any other Western country, rather than in Britain. And that was under the old system, before the STFC catastrophe and the new cuts.

    • telescoper Says:

      For those of you still following this thread, here is an update/clarification from the Times Higher:

      The true scale of cuts to higher education funding is likely to be beyond that initially revealed in the pre-Budget report, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

      Its analysis of the Chancellor’s report picks out higher education as a “significant unprotected area” – alongside defence, transport and housing – that will face big cuts in the next Parliament to balance rising or frozen spending in ring-fenced areas.

      That contradicts the claim by Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, that spending for Whitehall departments outside ring-fenced areas will remain flat.

      According to IFS researcher Gemma Tetlow, unprotected departments face average cuts of 5.6 per cent a year, or a total £36 billion in the three years to 2013-14.

      “All the increase in central government spending on public services over Labour’s second and third terms will be reversed by 2013-14. And potentially the first-term increases could be reversed by 2017-18,” she said.

      Note that, as far as STFC is concerned, any cuts arising from this settlement will be on top of the >£70 million current deficit. As I explained in the post, next week we will learn the extent of the current catastrophe in STFC’s finances, but things will get worse for several years beyond that.

  7. To what extent do such budget cuts affect the day-to-day life of the typical UK professor? In other words, what is paid for out of might-go-away-next-year sources of funding and what is guaranteed? On a related note, are UK professors tenured? Are they civil servants?

    Of course the cuts will affect the funding of soft-moneyed folks. But to what extent will the affect (directly) permanently employed people (assuming such a thing still exists)?

    • telescoper Says:

      Phillip,

      The biggest and most immediate effect will be on the postdocs whose contracts will in some cases be terminated at very short notice. Losing your reserch grant means no travel money and higher teaching loads too.

      Cuts make a big difference to the income of the department. In Cardiff we have our own budget and have to balance income (teaching and research) versus expenditure. More than half our income comes from research so if we lose a big slice of that, we slide into deficit which means we have to save costs which, since most of our expenditure is on staff, eventually means staff cuts.

      British academics generally speaking do not have tenure, in the sense that you can be made redundant if, e.g., your department closes. The old system of tenure which meant you could never lose your job except for gross moral turpitude went out during the 80s. Now we can be sacked just like anyone else.

      Peter

  8. “many talented scientists will be moving abroad to secure their future rather than stay in a country that seems to place so little value on science”

    This assumes that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Certainly their have been budget cuts in similar areas in many countries.

  9. Bryn Jones Says:

    It should be stated clearly that it will be people on fixed-term contracts and soft money who will be hit most. Academic staff on permanent contracts in Britain may not strictly have tenure, but they are almost always in post until they retire (at 65 years of age, 67, or younger if they choose voluntarily to take early retirement). Peter’s concerns are that the financial crisis may be so severe that some academics on permanent contracts may be made redundant on the closure of their university departments. I suspect that, in reality, anyone in this situation is likely to offered a fairly generous early retirement package.

    The danger in Britain is that cuts in government funding of universities, combined with cuts in grants from research councils, will make some university departments no longer viable. The STFC financial catastrophe is likely to mean that grant income to physics departments may be particularly hit, so physics departments will close preferentially.

    I’m interested in Peter’s comment that reduced numbers of research grants will mean increased teaching loads for academics. The new system of full economic costing of grants was supposed to mean that academics receiving grants would be able to buy themselves out of teaching by recruiting extra temporary teaching staff. But I have not seen any significant numbers of short-term contract teaching jobs being advertised, as one might have expected. What is happening here? Are academics still doing the teaching despite being given moeny to avoid it? Is the recruitment being done internally within departments?

  10. I don’t know, but I suspect that it is the “regular” postdocs who are picking up this teaching load. A good thing, since many permanent academic jobs involve teaching, but there is little opportunity to gain experience.

    If done properly, this is a good system. Taken to the extreme, all research would be done at universities yet all university employees would be hired and paid only to teach. If a professor gets a grant, it could pay for x% of his salary. In return, he wouldn’t teach x% and the university would doc his pay by x%. With that money, the university could pay younger people to teach (and since they would be on a lower payscale, they wouldn’t have to teach full-time). This avoids a problem many countries have: either give the people tenure and regret it if they fizzle out as researchers, or give them fixed-term contracts and regret it when they take up a permanent job elsewhere. With this system, all university employees have job security, yet the money for research is all peer-reviewed. Additionally, there is a supply of money to pay younger people to teach and allow them to get experience. (I actually know of a university which allows teaching only by those with experience; they rely on this experience having been gained elsewhere. Kant would say that this wouldn’t work if all behaved this way.)

    Of course, if funding for research is cut, this is bad, no matter what the system.

    • telescoper Says:

      Phillip,

      Postdocs do very little teaching, at least here in Cardiff, and what they do is largely on a voluntary basis. They are employed on money from outside the department to do research. If this money dries up then they will be made redundant. If our research funds dry up we will have to take in more students and/or shed staff, so the teaching load on those remaining will go up.

      I agree that it is good experience for postdocs to do a bit of teaching, but there is also cut-throat competition for jobs so they generally try to focus on research as much as possible.

      Peter

  11. This does lead to a situation, though, where someone is hired primarily to teach but is judged primarily on his research record. My experience is that research quality and teaching quality are rather orthogonal.

    In that case, though, what is the answer to Bryn’s question: “I’m interested in Peter’s comment that reduced numbers of research grants will mean increased teaching loads for academics.”

    • telescoper Says:

      The duties of academic staff involve both teaching and research and the selection at least nominally includes both. In reality, however, the first cut is indeed made on research (productivity, relevance to existing research, and especially ability to bring in funds). I don’t think I agree with your assertion, however. I’ve often found that the best researchers are also the best teachers. There are exceptions, of course. I think the system doesn’t give anywhere near enough credit to those people whose commitment to teaching has left them less time to do research and perhaps give too much reward to those who selfishlly pursue their own interests to the detriment of their teaching.

      As for Bryn’s “question”, I’m not sure what it is. I did however try to explain that if its research funds are cut, a department has to try to balance the books some other way. That means either cutting staff or taking on more students, either of which means that the teaching load on the remaining staff goes up..

      Peter

  12. Bryn Jones Says:

    My point was that over the past two years there should have been some extra funding from full economic costing for university departments to hire staff to cover teaching, so as to release grant holders from some of their lecturing. There seem to be very few signs of this process having occurred. Where has the extra grant income from F.E.C. gone over the past couple of years? Has it been kept by universities centrally? Has the money been kept from departments?

    I had expected the new soft money for teaching might provide some career options for me, but very few fixed-term lectureships have been advertised, and only a few teaching fellowships.

    I’m interested in Peter’s statement that “Postdocs do very little teaching, at least here in Cardiff, and what they do is largely on a voluntary basis.” When I was a postdoc in Cardiff, I frequently had 5-6 contact hours with students each week, none of which I chose to do, and once found that I was doing 2/3 of the teaching taken by astrophysics postdocs. My extensive teaching experience has not helped me significantly in my career, and if anything has obstructed it because I spent less time on research.

    Taking on more undergraduate students is not really an option for departments to increase income, unless student fees rise, because the higher education funding councils have a cap on the number of students within subject areas in each university when allocating money to support teaching.

  13. telescoper Says:

    Bryn,

    I don’t really know the answer to your question of where the FEC the money went. Different universities manage their budgets in different ways. Here in Cardiff the money comes to the school. In principle it could be used to take on more teaching staff but it is also used to support research more directly, e.g. by funding PhD students. In other places I think the FEC money goes directly into central coffers and there’s no direct benefit to the grant holder at all.

    As for postdocs doing teaching, that varies markedly from place to place. According to SERC and then PPARC and now STFC rules, postdocs can be required to teach up to 6 hours per week (including preparation). That’s what it was like years ago when I was at Sussex, for example. I know some departments were that level of teaching is written into their contracts. Here it’s a bit more flexible, although I think we may be moving towards a situation wherein we make it a requirement.

    It’s true that it’s difficult to take on more undergraduate students, because the number of home students is capped by HEFCW. The funding cap is likely to be tighter in future too. If fees do rise, which seems likely, that won’t help much either because the government will almost certainly cut the unit of resource it allocates directly by almost the same amount as any fee increase. Basically, we’re shafted. That’s why schools are looking at ways of recruiting more overseas students and also more taught postgraduate (i.e. Masters) students.

    Peter

  14. […] today do not take account of whatever share of the £600 million “efficiency savings” announced in the budget has been allocated to them. It may look bad now, but it’s probably going to get worse. On that […]

  15. […] letter confirms £180 million in efficiency savings from the 2009 Budget and an £83 million deduction following last year’s grant letter. On top of those there’s […]

  16. […] see the story in the Times Higher – that these cuts are on top of huge cuts arising from decisions announced in the pre-budget statement, earlier in December. Altogether these cuts will amount to over £900 million being taken from the […]

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