Local News

I’m looking forward to tonight’s Annual Chaos Society Physics Ball, in advance of which I’ll have to go home to get my glad rags sorted out.

This posh night out should provide some welcome fun at the end of a week in which various items of news concerning Welsh universities have generated considerable anxiety around these parts.

For a start the Welsh Assembly Government has announced funding levels for HEFCW, the body that distributes funding to Welsh universities. According to a newspaper article

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (Hefcw) has seen its core budget slashed by 8.5% from £453m in 2010-11 to £388m in 2011-12.

Well, pardon my numeracy but a cut from £453m  to £388m is actually a drop of 14.3% not 8.5%. This is much worse than the cuts already announced by HEFCE for English universities, although it remains to be seen how HEFCW will pass on this cut to the institutions it funds. Whatever it does will cause considerable pain, as this cut is being imposed a full year before universities will be allowed to recoup any losses by charging increased tuition fees.

There was also some even more local and even more disappointing news this week concerning HEFCW. Over the past year or so, the three remaining physics departments in Wales (at Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystwyth) have developed a proposal to form a strategic alliance along the lines of similar initiatives in Scotland, the Midlands, and South-East of England which resulted in the injection of large amounts of cash into physics research in those areas. The bid went into HEFCW in January and this week we received the decision. No.

I suppose the decision wasn’t surprising given the current funding climate, but it’s nevertheless extremely disappointing to realise we’ve  missed a very important boat. If  Welsh physics had gone down this road a decade ago – which I believe it should – then we would be in much better shape to face the very uncertain future that hangs over us. Still, I suppose it spares us the effort of trying to think up an acronym.

What’s especially worrying about this is that it seems to me that it makes it  inevitable that Welsh physics will do as poorly in the forthcoming Research Excercise Framework as it did in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise.
I think it’s worth quoting the observations made by Sub-panel 19 (physics) after the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise:

Sub-panel 19 regards the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance collaboration between Scottish departments as a highly positive development enhancing the quality of research in Scotland. South of the border other collaborations have also been formed with similar objectives. On the other hand we note with concern the performance of three Welsh departments where strategic management did not seem to have been as effective as elsewhere.

Ouch! The final sentence is completely out of order, of course, as it exceeds the remit of HEFCE (which administered the RAE) to try to dictate how Higher Education is run in Wales, as this responsibility is devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government. It is, however, to some extent a valid criticism. England and Scotland have pumped money into physics in order the develop strategic alliances. Wales hasn’t. And it isn’t going to either.

Given Wales’ relative autonomy when it comes to Higher Education I still don’t understand why its universities forced to participate in the REF anyway, but since it looks like we are stuck with it, I worry what the outcome will be, especially since Welsh physicists have been systematically excluded from the physics panel.

The last item of news concerns HEFCW itself. A report produced by John McCormick has recommended that it be scrapped and replaced with a new body called Universities Wales.

There are many reasons why scrapping HEFCW could turn out to be a good thing. For one thing, a new body might realise that continuing involvement in the REF is wasting a huge amount of time and money in the Welsh HE sector on an exercise that takes no account of Welsh strategic objectives. Nevertheless, I’m  a bit worried by some of the rhetoric coming out of the Welsh Assembly about this issue.

Universities are not the property of the Welsh Assembly (which in fact only funds part of their activity). Universities are independent charitable institutions. Their autonomy is essential in allowing them to do what they do best, free from the short-term expediency that dominates the thinking of the political establishment.

But that’s not to say that the Welsh Assembly is wrong to expect universities to respond to the changing socio-economic landscape. It’s all a matter of balance. If Universities Wales is sufficiently “hands-off” to allow universities to do what they do best – teaching and research – but sufficiently “hands-on” that it can help the HE sector to reorganize in the ways it clearly must, then this could be a very good move.

And if HEFCW does die, I’m afraid there will be few around these parts that mourn its passing.


Share/Bookmark

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Local News”

  1. […] week or so ago I passed on some pretty disappointing news about the funding climate here in Welsh universities. More details emerged this week about what […]

  2. […] I reported recently, we (Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystwyth) have tried to persuade HECFW to fund a Welsh physics […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: