Follow My Leader

News broke today about  the dreaded “Letter from HEFCE” to heads of English higher education institutions informing them of their funding allocations for the near future. The cuts outlined in the funding letter were not entirely unexpected, but have nevertheless generated quite a lot of reaction – see, e.g., here. For those of you who can’t be bothered to read the Circular Letter, it is of the form:

Dear Vice-Chancellor or Principal,

You’re screwed.

Yours Sincerely,


One of the ramifications of the decisions made by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (for that is HEFCE) is that funding will be further cut for research rated a “mere” 2* in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise. For those of you who prefer meaningless words to meaningless numbers-with-asterisks, 2* is translated in the HEFCE dictionary as “internationally recognised”. Obviously a waste of money then. By 2013 the only research that will be funded at all under the QR formula will be 3* (“internationally excellent) and 4* (world leading). Of course “world leading” won’t include “nationally leading”, as by then there won’t be anyone in England left to follow the survivors; everyone left after the cull will be doing their best to be a  “leader” in order to avoid being labelled a “follower”,  a crime for which the punishment is, apparently, death.

I only hope that this mad policy dismantling the Great Pyramind of Research from the bottom upwards isn’t pursued here in Wales too, otherwise I’ll soon be sitting next to the radiator in the local Wetherspoons drinking cheap beer with the rest of the prematurely terminated. For the time being, until HEFCW decides what do do, we in Wales have a stay of execution.

All this reminds me of a story I heard at a conference dinner years ago. I happened to be sitting next to someone Mrs X – the spouse of a physicist who shall remain nameless – who had for a time worked on undergraduate admissions for a Humanities Department of a  big American Ivy League university. One application for a place had been accompanied by a lukewarm recommendation from a high school teacher, containing a statement along the lines of John is definitely a follower rather than a leader. On this slim evidence of potential, my dining companion Mrs X decided to offer little Johnny a place.

Bewildered to hear that John had been admitted, the aforementioned teacher telephoned the Department and was put through to Mrs X. “But I thought I made it clear in my reference what I thought! Was the decision to let him in some sort of administrative error?”

“No,” said Mrs X.

“Let me explain. Every year this Department takes in about 500 undergraduate students. Virtually every  recommendation letter says this student is a leader rather than a follower. In the light of this huge number of leaders, I feel it is my duty every year to ensure that the Department contains at least one follower.”


One Response to “Follow My Leader”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Although the policy has been clear for several months, it is still startling to see the extent of the cuts to the English higher education budget in the forthcoming financial year (a 4% cut in teaching and 58% in capital expenditure in 2011-2012). This is, of course, the result of the United Kingdom Government’s determination to cut spending heavily, even before the switch in university funding from government to students is introduced. This is meant to be one very poor year before the new system returns funding to nearly the current level, but the new system may produce totally unforeseen consequences.

    I do wonder whether the politicians introducing these policies understand how tight university budgets are already (excepting the salaries of senior university management). The 2011-2012 cuts will add to the accumulated debts of some universities.

    The reduction of funding for research rated as 2* in the 2008 research assessment exercise is disappointing, though it had been signalled (very clumsily) by Vince Cable some months ago. Equally alarming has been the change in weighting between 3* and 4* research in recent years. The proposed new weightings for 2*, 3* and 4* research will be 0.294:3:9. Funding is therefore very heavily skewed to research that is not merely internationally excellent, but actually transforms a research field. It is classic papers that attract significant funding, and they are very difficult to produce, however excellent the researcher.

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