Archive for HEFCE

Open Access Repositories should be based on Subject, not Institution

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , on September 18, 2013 by telescoper

Just when we thought that the powers that be might be starting to see the light on Open Access, round comes another circular from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) that shows that policymakers have an unlimited ability to get things wrong at the most basic level.

The document concerned opens a “Consultation on open access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework” by putting forward a number of proposals.

Now it’s depressing enough that the entire document is predicated on the assumption that there will be another Research Excellence Framework, perhaps in 2020. The current REF is such a disaster that one might have hoped somebody up there would have decided that enough is enough. But then we thought that about Research Assessment Exercise in 2008. Even the most pessimistic of us hope that the REF would have a “lighter touch” than the RAE, but as it has turned out it’s many times worse both in the time it has taken to prepare submissions and the ridiculous game-playing and dodgy employment practices that it has encouraged among participation institutions.

I hope there’s still time to drive a stake through the heart of the runaway bureaucracy that keeps imposing this idiocies on us. After all, a new Chief Executive about to take over at HEFCE. Perhaps a new broom will be wielded? I hope against hope.

However, setting all that to one side, I had a look at the proposals for Open Access after 2014 contained in the document. Here is the summary of the proposals:



Why on Earth should the proposals favour national institutional repositories over international subject-based ones? A shining example of the latter is the arXiv which has, for Physics and Astronomy, become the basic resource for researchers around the world; it’s a one-stop shop at which one can access research from all around the world. By contrast, having work in the same field stored over a plethora of institutional repositories will serve no useful purpose at all, because UK research will not  treated in the same way as work from other countries and in any case individual repositoes will lead to an absurd level of duplication of infrastructure and other resources. This requirement is particularly indefensible in Physics and Astronomy, as it would require us to duplicate in (probably inferior) institutional repositories what we already do with the arXiv.

The UK Funding Councils need realize that the solution to many of the challenges of Open Access has already been found. In fact, the European Research Council seems to have acknowledged this and is now directly funding the arXiv. The UK Research Councils should be required to construct similar archives for their disciplines. That shouldn’t be difficult, because all the hard work has already been done. There is a working model.

I’ll be responding to the consultation document in no uncertain terms. The Royal Astronomical Society is also collating responses for a collective submission. We have to resist these, and other proposals such as another REF, which are being foisted on us by people who have no idea what they’re doing and no idea what damage they’re causing.

Farewell, then, Leighton Andrews…

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on June 27, 2013 by telescoper

Although I no longer live in Wales I couldn’t resist commenting on the resignation, announced on Tuesday, of the Welsh Education Minister, Leighton Andrews. It seems that Mr Andrews was spotted holding a placard protesting against the planned closure of a school, a closure that results from his own policies. Personally, I think that it’s quite an imaginative move for a Minister to campaign against his own policies. It shows an open-mindedness absent in most politicians.

Leighton Andrews will probably be best remembered as the architect of the policy that students domiciled in Wales would be protected from having to pay large tuition fee rise by a system of grants, meaning that the Welsh Assembly will pick up the tab for Welsh students. They will still have to pay the “old”  fee level of £3290 per annum, but the WAG will pay the extra approx £6K charged by most Universities since the fee cap was raised. This is good news for the students of course, but the grants will be available to Welsh students not just for study in Welsh universities but wherever they choose to go. Since about 16,000 Welsh students are currently at university in England, this means that the WAG is handing over a great big chunk (up to 16,000 × £6000 = £96 million) of its hard-earned budget straight back to England. This has always seemed to me a very strange thing to do when the Welsh Government is constantly complaining that the Barnett formula doesn’t give them enough money in the first place.

What’s more, the Welsh Assembly grants for Welsh students are paid for by top-slicing the grants that HECFW makes to Welsh universities. So funding cuts for universities in Wales have been  imposed in order to subsidize English universities. This is hardly in the spirit of devolution either!

English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay full whack, but will be paying to attend universities whose overall level of state funding is even lower than in England (at least for STEM subjects whose subsidy is protected in England). Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales, compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England, but I wonder how many of them realize that if they study England their £9K fee attracts an additional investment of £1.5K from HEFCE whereas there is no equivalent central resource supplied by HEFCW if they study in Wales? To put it another way, each £1 of tuition fee paid by a STEM student is worth £1.16 in England, but just £1 in Wales.

The other drastic implication of this policy is that HEFCW will have no money left to fund research via the QR mechanism that pertains in England (at least for the time being). I blogged about this a couple of days ago so won’t say any more today.

I don’t think any of my former colleagues in Cardiff are terribly upset to see Leighton Andrews go, but there is some nervousness about whether the replacement might be even worse. The new Education Minister is Huw Lewis. I wish him well in his new post, and hope he has the courage to question some of the decisions made by his predecessor that have had such a negative effect on education in Wales.

Anyway, in bidding farewell to Leighton Andrews I thought I’d show him all due respect, and do him the honour of presenting a look-alike. All reference to Muppets purely coincidental…


University Research Funding: Will the Axe Fall on QR?

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on June 25, 2013 by telescoper

As we tremble in anticipation of this week’s Spending Review, which will determine the budgets for Science and Higher Education in 2015/16, there’s fairly strong evidence that Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is looking to save about £11.5 billion of public spending. Given that funding for some Whitehall departments is ring-fenced there is considerable speculation that the axe will fall heavily on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which seems likely to have to make over £1 billion of savings.

But where will these savings in the BIS budget be made? The government has made noises that it will protect science funding (at least in cash terms) so big cuts in the larger research council budgets appear unlikely. However, Treasury officials have been rumoured as thinking that the Universities are now “awash with money” and should therefore be cut. On the other hand, incoming for University teaching now largely comes from fees so there’s very little of the HEFCE teaching budget to cut further.

Now here’s the rub. The part of HEFCE’s budget that deals with research amounts to about £1.6 billion per year. This, the so-called `QR’ funding, is currently being distributed to Higher Education Institutions according to the outcome of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). This year we
are preparing submissions to a new system called the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which was always intended to be used to distribute QR funding from 2015/16 onwards. But what if the government decides that the only way to balance the books is to remove the QR funding stream entirely?

The 2012 funding letter from HEFCE states explains that it is distributing

£1,558 million for research. The ring-fenced settlement for science and research means that we will be able to maintain overall funding, in cash terms, until 2014-15.

But this does not include the period covered by the spending review, so it’s perfectly possible that the “ring fence” could be removed, or at least re-interpreted as a result of this spending review.

The government could argue that QR and Research Council grant income correlate so well that there’s no need to continue with the current dual funding system, by which the Research Councils provide grants for specific projects and programmes and the higher education funding bodies provide block grant funding to universities via the QR line. It could also argue that the high fees being charged mean that Universities will be able to cope with these cuts without undue hardship. There is a precedent in Wales, where HEFCW will not be awarding any QR funding after the 2013 REF, so why shouldn’t England do the same? They could also get away with the argument that this money isn’t part of the ring fence mentioned above.

The only problem is that so many institutions have spent so much time on preparations for the REF that cancelling the funding associated with it will mean all that effort is wasted. Indeed, the only remaining justification (if it can be called that) for Universities participating in the REF is for position in various league tables, which is rather a lot of expense for something of extremely debatable value.

Anyway, if I were a gambling man (which I am, actually) I don’t think I’d be betting against this outcome. Predictions are very difficult, especially about the future, but this one is mine. And I hope it’s proved wrong…

The South-East Physics Network – The Sequel

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2013 by telescoper

Every now and again I’m at a loss for something to blog about when a nice press release comes to the rescue. This announcement has just gone live, and I make no apology for repeating it here!


UPDATE: You can now read the University of Sussex take on this announcement here.



New Investment in Physics Teaching and Research in South East England

The South East Physics network (SEPnet) and HEFCE are delighted to announce their plans to invest £13.1 million pounds to sustain physics undergraduate and postgraduate teaching provision, and world class research facilities, staff and doctoral training over the 5 years up to 2018. HEFCE will provide £2.75 million to maintain and expand the network, to establish a dedicated regional graduate training programme for physics postgraduate students and address physics specific issues of student participation and diversity. On top of the HEFCE contribution, each SEPnet partner will support and fund programmes of Outreach, Employability and Research.

The South East Physics Network (SEPnet) was formed after receiving a £12.5 million grant from HEFCE in 2008 as a network of six Physics departments in South East England at the Universities of Kent, Queen Mary University of London, Royal Holloway University of London, Southampton, Surrey and Sussex. The Science and Technology Facilities Council and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory provided additional funds and resources for collaborations in particle physics and astrophysics. The University of Portsmouth joined in 2010. The Open University and the University of Hertfordshire will join the network effective the 1st August 2013.

SEPnet Phase One has been tremendously successful for the partners in SEPnet and for physics in the region. The Outreach programme, regarded as an exemplar for collaborative outreach, uses the combined knowledge and resources of each partner to provide greater impact and reach and demonstrates that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It has succeeded in effectively exploiting the growing national interest in physics through its wide range of public engagement and schools activities. There has been a substantial increase in applications and intake for physics undergraduate courses and undergraduate numbers are now 90% higher in the SEPnet physics departments compared with 2007 and applications up approximately 115% – well above national trends.

Announcing the investment, SEPnet’s Independent Chair Professor Sir William Wakeham said “This is a major success for physics both in the region and nationally. HEFCE’s contribution via SEPnet has enabled the partners in the consortium to grow and develop their physics departments for the long term. Before SEPnet, physics departments had falling student numbers and lacked research diversity. Now they are robust and sustainable and the SEPnet consortium is an exemplar of collaboration in Higher Education.”

David Sweeney, Director of Research, Innovation and Skills, HEFCE said: “We are delighted to see the fruits of a very successful intervention to support what was once a vulnerable subject. HEFCE are pleased to provide funding for a new phase, particularly to address new challenges in the field of postgraduate training and widening participation. The expansion to include new physics departments is a testament to the success of the network and can only act to strengthen and diversify the collaboration.”

Sir Peter Knight, President of the Institute of Physics, expressed strong support for the government’s continued investments in the sciences generally and in physics specifically. “SEPnet has been an undoubted success in sustaining physics in the South East region and has strongly participated in contributing to its beneficial effects nationally. It is an exemplar of collaborative best practice in outreach, employability and research and we now look forward to collaborating in the critical areas of graduate training, public engagement and diversity.”

The specific programmes already being developed by the network include:

  1. a regional Graduate Network built on the strength of current SEPnet research collaborations and graduate training whose  primary objectives  will be to:
  • develop and deliver an exemplar programme of PhD transferable and leadership skills training delivered flexibly to create employment-ready physics doctoral graduates for the economic benefit of the UK;
  • increase employer engagement with HEIs including PhD internships,  industrially-sponsored  studentships and Knowledge Transfer fellowships;
  • enhance the impact  of SEPnet’s research via a clear, collaborative impact strategy;
  • enhance research environment diversity through engagement with Athena SWAN and the IoP’s Project Juno.
  1. Expansion of its employer engagement and internship programmes, widening the range of work experiences available to enhance undergraduate (UG) and postgraduate (PG) employability and progress to research degrees.
  2. Enhancement of its Outreach Programme  to deliver and disseminate  best practice in schools and public engagement and  increase diversity in  physics education.

The inclusion of new partners The Open University and University of Hertfordshire broadens the range of teaching and postgraduate research in the network. The University of Reading, about to introduce an undergraduate programme in Environmental Physics (Department of Meteorology), will join as an associate partner.

A key part of the contributions from each partner is the provision of “SEPnet PhD Studentships”, a programme to attract the brightest and best physics graduates to engage in a programme of collaborative research within the network, of joint supervision and with a broad technical and professional graduate training programme within the SEPnet Graduate Network.

The network will be led by the University of Southampton. Its Vice-Chancellor, Professor Don Nutbeam: “I am delighted that the University of Southampton, in partnership with nine other universities in the region, is able to build on the success of the SEPnet initiative to reinvigorate the university physics teaching and research and take it to a new level in the turbulent period ahead for the higher education sector. The SEPnet training programme brings novelty, quality and diversity to the regions physics postgraduates that we expect to be a model for other regions and subjects.”

Counting for the REF

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on April 20, 2013 by telescoper

It’s a lovely day in Brighton and I’m once again on campus for an Admissions Event at Sussex University, this time for the Mathematics Department in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences.  After all the terrible weather we’ve had since I arrived in February, it’s a delight and a relief to see the campus at its best for today’s crowds. Anyway, now that I’ve finished my talk and the subsequent chats with prospective students and their guests I thought I’d do a quick blogette before heading back home and preparing for this evenings Physics & Astronomy Ball. It’s all go around here.

What I want to do first of all is to draw attention to a very nice blog post by a certain Professor Moriarty who, in case you did not realise it, dragged himself away from his hiding place beneath the Reichenbach Falls and started a new life as Professor of Physics at Nottingham University.  Phil Moriarty’s piece basically argues that the only way to really judge the quality of a scientific publication is not by looking at where it is published, but by peer review (i.e. by getting knowledgeable people to read it). This isn’t a controversial point of view, but it does run counter to the current mania for dubious bibliometric indicators, such as journal impact factors and citation counts.

The forthcoming Research Excellence Framework involves an assessment of the research that has been carried out in UK universities over the past five years or so, and a major part of the REF will be the assessment of up to four “outputs” submitted by research-active members of staff over the relevant period (from 2008 to 2013). reading Phil’s piece might persuade you to be happy that the assessment of the research outputs involved in the REF will be primarily based on peer review. If you are then I suggest you read on because, as I have blogged about before, although peer review is fine in principle, the way that it will be implemented as part of the REF has me deeply worried.

The first problem arises from the scale of the task facing members of the panel undertaking this assessment. Each research active member of staff is requested to submit four research publications (“outputs”) to the panel, and we are told that each of these will be read by at least two panel members. The panel comprises 20 members.

As a rough guess let’s assume that the UK has about 40 Physics departments, and the average number of research-active staff in each is probably about 40. That gives about 1600 individuals for the REF. Actually the number of category A staff submitted to the 2008 RAE was 1,685.57 FTE (Full-Time Equivalent), pretty  close to this figure. At 4 outputs per person that gives 6400 papers to be read. We’re told that each will be read by at least two members of the panel, so that gives an overall job size of 12800 paper-readings. There is some uncertainty in these figures because (a) there is plenty of evidence that departments are going to be more selective in who is entered than was the case in 2008 and (b) some departments have increased their staff numbers significantly since 2008. These two factors work in opposite directions so not knowing the size of either it seems sensible to go with the numbers from the previous round for the purposes of my argument.

There are 20 members of the panel so 6400 papers submitted means that, between 29th November 2013 (the deadline for submissions) and the announcement of the results in December 2014 each member of the panel will have to have read 640 research papers. That’s an average of about two a day…

It is therefore blindingly obvious that whatever the panel does do will not be a thorough peer review of each paper, equivalent to refereeing it for publication in a journal. The panel members simply won’t have the time to do what the REF administrators claim they will do. We will be lucky if they manage a quick skim of each paper before moving on. In other words, it’s a sham.

Now we are also told the panel will use their expert judgment to decide which outputs belong to the following categories:

  • 4*  World Leading
  • 3* Internationally Excellent
  • 2* Internationally Recognized
  • 1* Nationally Recognized
  • U   Unclassified

There is an expectation that the so-called QR  funding allocated as a result of the 2013 REF will be heavily weighted towards 4*, with perhaps a small allocation to 3* and probably nothing at all for lower grades. The word on the street is that the weighting for 4* will be 9 and that for 3* only 1. “Internationally recognized”  will be regarded as worthless in the view of HEFCE. Will the papers belonging to the category “Not really understood by the panel member” suffer the same fate?

The panel members will apparently know enough about every single one of the papers they are going to read in order to place them  into one of the above categories, especially the crucial ones “world-leading” or “internationally excellent”, both of which are obviously defined in a completely transparent and objective manner. Not. The steep increase in weighting between 3* and 4* means that this judgment could mean a drop of funding that could spell closure for a department.

We are told that after forming this judgement based on their expertise the panel members will “check” the citation information for the papers. This will be done using the SCOPUS service provided (no doubt at considerable cost) by   Elsevier, which by sheer coincidence also happens to be a purveyor of ridiculously overpriced academic journals.  No doubt Elsevier are  on a nice little earner peddling meaningless data for the HECFE bean-counters, but I have no confidence that they will add any value to the assessment process.

There have been high-profile statements to the effect that the REF will take no account of where the relevant “outputs”  are published, including a pronouncement by David Willetts. On the face of it, that would suggest that a paper published in the spirit of Open Access in a free archive would not be disadvantaged. However, I very much doubt that will be the case.

I think if you look at the volume of work facing the REF panel members it’s pretty clear that citation statistics will be much more important for the Physics panel than we’ve been led to believe. The panel simply won’t have the time or the breadth of understanding to do an in-depth assessment of every paper, so will inevitably in many cases be led by bibliometric information. The fact that SCOPUS doesn’t cover the arXiv means that citation information will be entirely missing from papers just published there.

The involvement of  a company like Elsevier in this system just demonstrates the extent to which the machinery of research assessment is driven by the academic publishing industry. The REF is now pretty much the only reason why we have to use traditional journals. It would be better for research, better for public accountability and better economically if we all published our research free of charge in open archives. It wouldn’t be good for academic publishing houses, however, so they’re naturally very keen to keep things just the way they are. The saddest thing is that we’re all so cowed by the system that we see no alternative but to participate in this scam.

Incidentally we were told before the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise that citation data would emphatically not be used;  we were also told afterwards that citation data had been used by the Physics panel. That’s just one of the reasons why I’m very sceptical about the veracity of some of the pronouncements coming out from the REF establishment. Who knows what they actually do behind closed doors?  All the documentation is shredded after the results are published. Who can trust such a system?

To put it bluntly, the apparatus of research assessment has done what most bureaucracies eventually do; it has become  entirely self-serving. It is imposing increasingly  ridiculous administrative burdens on researchers, inventing increasingly  arbitrary assessment criteria and wasting increasing amounts of money on red tape which should actually be going to fund research.

And that’s all just about “outputs”. I haven’t even started on “impact”….

Critical Masses

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by telescoper

One of the interesting bits of news floating around academia at the moment is the announcement that my current employer (until the end of next week), Cardiff University is to join forces with the Universities of Bath, Exeter and Bristol in an alliance intended to create a ‘critical mass of knowledge’ and help Cardiff  ‘better compete for more research income’ (apparently by pretending to be in England rather than in Wales).  How successful this will be – or even what form this alliance will take – remains to be seen.

There’s been a lot of gossip about what inspired this move, but it’s not the first attempt to create a collaborative bloc of this kind. Last year five universities from the Midlands announced plans to do something similar. The “M5” group of   Birmingham, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick got together primarily to share infrastructure in order to help them win grants, which is probably what also lies behind the Cardiff-Bath-Exeter-Bristol deal.

Of course there are also a myriad  alliances at the level of individual Schools and Departments. I’ll shortly be joining the University of Sussex, which is a major player in SEPNET – the South-East Physics Physics Network which was set up with help from HEFCE There are other such networks in England, as well as SUPA in Scotland, funded by the devolved Scottish Funding Council. Attempts to form a similar arrangement for Physics in Wales were given short shrift by the Welsh Funding Agency, HEFCW. The inability or unwillingness of HEFCW to properly engage with research in Wales is no doubt behind Cardiff’s decision to seek alliances with English universities but I wonder how it will translate into funding. Surely HEFCE wouldn’t be allowed to fund a Welsh University, so presumably this is more aimed at funding from the research councils or further afield, perhaps in Europe. Or perhaps the idea is that if GW4 can persuade HEFCE to fund Bath, Bristol and Exeter, HEFCW will be shamed into stumping up something for Cardiff? Sneaky.

Anyway, good luck to the new “GW4” alliance. Although I’m moving to pastures new I’ll certainly keep an eye on any developments, and hope that they’re positive. The only thing that really disturbs me is that the name “Great Western Four” is apparently inspired by the Great Western Railway, now run by an outfit called First Great Western. My recent experiences of travelling on that have left a lot to be desired and I’m sure the name will have negative connotations in the minds of many who are fed up of their unreliable, overcrowded, overpriced and poorly managed services. They say a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but so far this is only a name – and one with a distinctly questionable odour.

REF moves the goalposts (again)

Posted in Bad Statistics, Education, Science Politics with tags , , , on January 18, 2013 by telescoper

The topic of the dreaded 2014 Research Excellence Framework came up quite a few times in quite a few different contexts over the last few days, which reminded me that I should comment on a news item that appeared a week or so ago.

As you may or may not be aware, the REF is meant to assess the excellence of university departments in various disciplines and distribute its “QR” research funding accordingly.  Institutions complete submissions which include details of relevant publications etc and then a panel sits in judgement. I’ve already blogged of all this: the panels clearly won’t have time to read every paper submitted in any detail at all, so the outcome is likely to be highly subjective. Moreover, HEFCE’s insane policy to award the bulk of its research funds to only the very highest grade (4* – “internationally excellent”) means that small variations in judged quality will turn into enormous discrepancies in the level of research funding. The whole thing is madness, but there seems no way to inject sanity into the process as the deadline for submissions remorselessly approaches.

Now another wrinkle has appeared on the already furrowed brows of those preparing REF submissions. The system allows departments to select staff to be entered; it’s not necessary for everyone to go in. Indeed if only the very best researchers are entered then the typical score for the department will be high, so it will appear  higher up  in the league tables, and since the cash goes primarily to the top dogs then this might produce almost as much money as including a few less highly rated researchers.

On the other hand, this is a slightly dangerous strategy because it presupposes that one can predict which researchers and what research will be awarded the highest grade. A department will come a cropper if all its high fliers are deemed by the REF panels to be turkeys.

In Wales there’s something that makes this whole system even more absurd, which is that it’s almost certain that there will be no QR funding at all. Welsh universities are spending millions preparing for the REF despite the fact that they’ll get no money even if they do stunningly well. The incentive in Wales is therefore even stronger than it is in England to submit only the high-fliers, as it’s only the position in the league tables that will count.

The problem with a department adopting the strategy of being very selective is that it could have a very  negative effect on the career development of younger researchers if they are not included in their departments REF submission. As well as taking the risk that people who manage to convince their Head of School that they are bound to get four stars in the REF may not have the same success with the various grey eminences who make the decision that really matters.

Previous incarnations of the REF (namely the Research Assessment Exercises of 2008 and 2001) did not publish explicit information about exactly how many eligible staff were omitted from the submissions, largely because departments were extremely creative in finding ways of hiding staff they didn’t want to include.

Now however it appears there are plans that the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) will publish its own figures on how many staff it thinks are eligible for inclusion in each department. I’m not sure how accurate these figures will be but they will change the game, in that they will allow compilers of league tables to draw up lists of the departments that prefer playing games to   just allowing the REF panels to  judge the quality of their research.

I wonder how many universities are hastily revising their submission plans in the light of this new twist?


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