Archive for HEFCE

The Transparent Dishonesty of the Research Excellence Framework

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on May 30, 2012 by telescoper

Some of my colleagues in the School of Physics & Astronomy recently attended a briefing session about the  forthcoming Research Excellence Framework. This, together with the post I reblogged earlier this morning, suggested that I should re-hash an article I wrote some time ago about the arithmetic of the REF, and how it will clearly not do what it says on the tin.

The first thing is the scale of the task facing members of the panel undertaking the assessment. Every research active member of staff in every University in the UK 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 Physics panel comprises 20 members.

As a rough guess I’d say 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 are 20 members of the panel, so that 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. Every day. Weekends included.

Now we are 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. In other words “Internationally recognized” research will probably be deemed completely worthless by 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.

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 haven’t any confidence that it will add much 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 recent 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.

Is this the “Squeezed Middle”?

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , on March 29, 2012 by telescoper

As reported in the Times Higher , the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has announced its allocations to English Higher Education Institutions for 2012/13. As expected, many universities are receiving substantial cuts next year. Here is a table of the biggest losers:

The Times Higher article describes this as the “Squeezed Middle”. It looks more like the “Squeezed Bottom” to me, but then I suppose that would have made an inappropriate headline.

Is there really a University of Sunderland?

Anyways, this allows me the chance to congratulate the former Director of Learning and Teaching in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University on his move to the University of Central Lancashire, currently riding high at Number 7 in the above table…

 

Come off it, REF!

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on October 27, 2011 by telescoper

Yesterday we all trooped off to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for a Staff Away Day. We didn’t actually get to play on the pitch of course, which wasn’t even there, as it had been removed to reveal a vast expanse of soil. Instead we were installed in the “Dragon Suite” for a discussion about our preparation for the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework.

Obviously I can’t post anything about our internal deliberations, but I’m sure departments up and down the United Kingdom are doing similar things so I thought I’d mention a few things which are already in the public domain and my personal reactions to them. I should also say that the opinions I express below are my own and not necessarily those of anyone else at Cardiff.

The first thing is 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 I’d say 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 are 20 members of the panel, so that 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…

Incidentally, as I’ve mentioned before, the Physics REF panel includes representatives from institutions in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not Wales. The decision to exclude representation from Welsh physics departments was a disgrace, in my view.

Now we are 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. “Internationally recognized” research is probably worthless in the view of HEFCE, in other words. 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.

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. I’ve just checked the citation information for some of my papers on SCOPUS, and found an alarming number of errors. No doubt Elsevier are  on a nice little earner peddling meaningless data for the HECFE bean-counters, but I haven’t any confidence that it will add much 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 recent 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”….

Commodification, the Academic Journal Racket and the Digital Commons (via The Disorder Of Things)

Posted in Open Access, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2011 by telescoper

Here’s another reasoned rant regarding the rapacity of the research racketeers. I think it makes some really good points.

The video clip is worth watching too, it being very funny.

Commodification, the Academic Journal Racket and the Digital Commons David, my erstwhile ‘parasitic overlord’ from when I was co-editing Millennium, points me to some posts by Kent Anderson of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, who defends the industry on a number of grounds from Monbiot’s polemic against the journal racket. The comments threads on both pieces are populated by academics who agree with Monbiot and by publishing industry colleagues who agree with Anderson (and who alternate between dismissing and … Read More

via The Disorder Of Things

(Guest Post) Physics and Binary Creep

Posted in Education, Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on April 15, 2011 by telescoper

His Excel-lence (geddit?) Paul Crowther has been at it again, using his favourite packages sophisticated graph-plotting facilities to produce the interesting figures that go with another guest post….

–0–

Last week’s Times Higher Ed included a news item headlined ‘binary creep’, in which HEFCE were considering restricting support for PhD research students to universities of the highest research quality. Concerns were expressed in the article about a two stream future for universities – research intensives in the fast lane and ‘the rest’ in the slow lane. This reminded me of a recent Times Higher Ed interview with the former Commons’ Science and Technology Committee chairman, Lord (Phil) Willis. Lord Willis argued that the UK could probably sustain “no more than 30″ universities with the capacity to attract the best global researchers and carry out world-class research, a view no doubt shared by ministers and civil servants within BIS. I should qualify the following line of thought by emphasising that this is not Government policy, although both stories reflect moves by funding agencies to further concentrate increasingly scarce resources on the highest ranked research universities. For example, in England HEFCE is expected to withdraw all quality-related (QR) support from 2* RAE research from 2012 onwards.

Mindful of the fact that in such a vision for the future, there would be a comparatively few, research intensive universities (`winners’) where would that leave the remainder (‘losers’), especially for physics? Research quality can be quantified in all manner of ways, but for simplicity I have adopted the Quality Index (QI) from Research Fortnight which provides a single mark out of 100 based on RAE quality profiles (4*:3*:2*:1* weighted 8:4:2:1). The chart below shows the  QI-ranked list of more-or-less all 120 UK universities who were rated in RAE 2008. It will come as no surprise to anyone that Oxbridge, LSE and Imperial top the rankings, closely followed by UCL and a few other high flyers, but beyond the top 10 perhaps more surprising there are no natural breaks in quality from Durham and QMUL in joint 11th place, to Bolton at 107th.

Thinking out loud about Willis’ assertion that the UK should not be spreading the jam more thinly than, say, the leading 30 universities, there would obviously be individual physics departments currently outside the top 30 which are ranked significantly higher than those within the top 30. To illustrate this, the chart also includes (in blue) physics QI scores for all teaching institutions that were assessed under the UOA 19 in RAE 2008. To blindly follow Lord Willis’ suggestion, 16 out of 42 institutions involved with physics research – comprising 37 per cent of all academic staff – would be clear losers. These would include one physics department raked within the top 10 (scoring 49) because its host institution is ranked 34th overall, while winners would include a department scoring 31, i.e. ranked 40th (out of 42) for physics, as a result of its university squeezing into the top 30. Chemistry – within the same RAE sub-panel as physics – reveals a broadly similar distribution, although there is perhaps a greater concentration of the highest research quality in the overall top 20, as the chart below illustrates.

Alternatively, if there is to be further concentration, one could argue that research funding should focus on, say, the top 20 physics departments regardless of the performance of their host institution. Indeed, already 80 percent of STFC spending goes to only 16 universities. Still, as RAE grades indicate, a strength of UK physics is the breadth of high quality research, with no natural break points until beyond 30th place in the rankings, as the final chart shows. Of course, RAE scores aren’t the sole criterion being discussed, with “critical mass” the other main driver. Due in large part to the big four, 70 per cent of physics academic staff submitted for RAE 2008 are in departments that are currently ranked in the top 20. Chemistry has a similar story to tell in the chart, albeit displaying a somewhat steeper QI gradient.

What might be the long-term consequences of a divergence between a small number of “research-facing” universities and the rest? It is apparent that if the number of physics departments involved in research were reduced by a third, some high quality research groups would be lost, regardless of precisely where the cleaver ultimately fell. Let’s too not forget that astrophysics represents the largest sub-field of physics from the last IOP survey, as measured in numbers of academics.

If policy makers don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with A-level physics being taught by teachers qualified, say, in biology, then they might too wonder whether physics degrees could be taught by academics lacking a physics research background? This might work for first year undergraduate courses, but thereafter isn’t more specialist knowledge needed that a research background most readily provides? How would the third of physics academics outside the top 30 universities react to the prospects of a teaching-only future? Many surely would consider jumping ship either to one of the chosen few or overseas, further decreasing the pool of those with research experience in the remaining physics departments. This is further complicated by the expected political desire that physics departments should be appropriately distributed geographically across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

As a final thought experiment, the fate of physics departments facing the prospect of a teaching-only future might also be binary in nature, either (a) whither and die, decreasing the range of institutions offering degrees in physics (or physical sciences, natural sciences etc.); perversely at a time when the Government are anxious to maintain the number of students studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, or (b) thriving – free from the distractions of chasing dwinding research grants – by adapting to offer shorter duration physics degrees, described as “cheap and cheerful” by Dr David Starkey during the discussion on student fees on last Thursday’s Newsnight. To reiterate, it is not explicit Government policy to actively reduce the number of physics departments that receive research allocations, but this seems to be the general “direction of travel” in policy-makers speak, so I fear a rocky path ahead..


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A Modest Proposal

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , on March 7, 2011 by telescoper

Last week I posted a short item about the looming Kafka-esque nightmare that is the Research Excellence Framework. A few people commented to me in private that although they hate the REF and accept that it’s ridiculously expensive and time-consuming, they didn’t see any alternative. I’ve been thinking about it and thought I’d make a suggestion. Feel free to shoot it down in flames through the box at the end, but I’ll begin with a short introduction.

Those of you old enough to remember will know that before 1992 (when the old `polytechnics’ were given the go-ahead to call themselves `universities’) the University Funding Council – the forerunner of HEFCE – allocated research funding to universities by a simple formula related to the number of undergraduate students. When the number of universities suddenly increased this was no longer sustainable, so the funding agency began a series of Research Assessment Exercises to assign research funds (now called QR funding) based on the outcome. This prevented research money going to departments that weren’t active in research, most (but not all) of which were in the ex-Polys. Over the years the apparatus of research assessment has become larger, more burdensome, and incomprehensibly obsessed with “research concentration”. Like most bureaucracies it has lost sight of its original purpose and has now become something that exists purely for its own sake.

It’s especially indefensible at this time of deep cuts to university budgets that we are being forced to waste an increasingly large fraction of our decreasing budgets on staff-time that accomplishes nothing useful except pandering to the bean counters.

My proposal is to abandon the latest manifestation of research assessment mania, i.e. the REF, and return to a simple formula, much like the pre-1992 system,  except that QR funding should be based on research student rather than undergraduate numbers.

There’s an obvious risk of game-playing, and this idea would only stand a chance of working at all if the formula involved the number of successfully completed research degrees over a given period .

I can also see an argument  that four-year undergraduate students (e.g. MPhys or MSci students) also be included in the formula, as most of these involve a project that requires a strong research environment.

Among the advantages of this scheme are that it’s simple, easy to administer, would not spread QR funding in non-research departments, and would not waste hundreds of millions of pounds on bureaucracy that would be better spent on research. It would also maintain the current “dual support” system for research.

I’m sure you’ll point out disadvantages through the comments box!


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Meet the Panel …

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on February 21, 2011 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has announced the list of panel members for the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF), a massive exercise in bean counting which will drag on until 2014.

Much as I enjoy ploughing through HEFCE’s fascinating documents, in this case I went straight to the Physics (& Astronomy) sub-panel, which is:

All estimable folk and a good selection of different expertise. There’s also a good geographical spread with members from the English regions, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and of course Wales. Oh, wait a minute. Not Wales. Apparently Wales doesn’t merit any representation on the Physics REF panel. Nor did it last time. Why am I thinking to myself “here we go again”?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t really understand why Welsh universities are being forced to take part in the REF anyway. Or those from Scotland and Northern Ireland for that matter. The REF is driven by an English agenda which is certainly at variance with Welsh priorities. Whereas in England, HEFCE is allocating funding using a formula involving an exceedingly steep weighting towards “internationally leading” research, here in Wales the equivalent body HEFCW is resisting the urge to concentrate research cash so heavily according to such a doubtful measure of research quality.

And don’t get me started on the so-called “impact” measures. All I can say about them is that Kafka would have been proud.

The Welsh Assembly Government has recently taken steps to protect Welsh students against the effects of Higher Education cuts imposed by Westminster. However, there will be substantial cuts in resource to Welsh universities in order to pay for this. At the same time as making “efficiency savings”, as is appropriate for the age of austerity, we’re also being forced to participate in a monstrously wasteful bureaucratic exercise of little relevance to the needs or aspirations of Welsh universities.

I think there’s a strong case for HEFCW to show a bit of real independence and withdraw from the REF altogether.


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Follow My Leader

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , on February 2, 2011 by telescoper

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,

HEFCE

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.”


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Did HE fall, or was it pushed?

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on October 30, 2010 by telescoper

One of the other scary bits of news to emerge last week concerns proposed changes to the arrangements for tuition fees in English universities. According to the Times Higher, the Minister responsible for universities, David Willetts, has admitted that the cuts to university budgets announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review, will occur before any new money flows into universities from whatever new fee arrangements emerge from the government’s deliberations following the Browne Report.

One of the recommendations of the Browne Report was that central government funding for arts, humanities and social sciences be scrapped entirely. Although I’m a scientist and I do think Science is Vital this is a very bad move, as I think other forms of scholarship and learning are vital too, for a wide range of reasons including cultural ones. It was never clear whether arts & humanities departments would be able to recoup the money lost as a result of cuts to central funding, but now it appears they will have to survive for an indeterminate time without any prospect of extra income to offset the shortfall.

The upshot of all this will be a huge and immediate cut in the budgets of many university departments, a  state of affairs about which Willetts commented only thus:

You have to expect that there will be pressure on universities to save money, and we don’t think they should be exempt from the pursuit of efficiencies.

Can an immediate 40% cut in teaching income be made by efficiency savings? I don’t think so, Mr Willetts. Even making large-scale redundancies won’t help there, as that costs a lot of money up front.

So why is the government pushing through cuts to university funding before ensuring that the new fee arrangements are in place? A variety of answers are possible. One would be incompetence, always a possibility when politicians are involved. However, although this government has tried to rush things through very quickly, I do not believe that this is something that hasn’t been considered very carefully. I think it’s deliberate.  I believe that this government wants some universities to fail, and has found an opportunity to push them over the edge.

It’s not about efficiency savings, it’s about survival of the fattest. Only those places able to dig into their reserves for several years will be able to weather the storm. Some will cope, some won’t. That’s the point.

It’s well known that several universities, most of them post-1992 institutions, have been struggling financially for a considerable time. In the past, special procedures have always been implemented to protect organizations of this type that have been close to insolvency. This government has said that will do things differently, and that universities that go bust will now be allowed to fail. This may involve them closing altogether, or being taken over by private companies. If I were working in a university heavily dependent on income from arts, humanities and social science teaching, I would be extremely nervous about the future. I mean, more nervous than I am anyway, working as a scientist in an institution which is financially sound. And that  is already very nervous indeed.

The other side of this particularly nasty coin, is that more “prestigious” institutions specialising in non-STEM areas, such as the London School of Economics, are already considering the option of going private. If the government gives them no support directly, yet insists – as seems likely – in capping the fee students pay at a figure around £7K per annum as well as strangling them with yards of red tape as HEFCE is wont to do, then why not just withdraw from the system and set fees at whatever level they like? It’s unlikely that an institution with a strong science base will go down this road, as the taxpayer is going to continue supporting STEM subjects, but it seems to me that it would make sense for the LSE to opt out of a system whether the costs of membership exceed the benefits received.

In the longer term, the squeeze is set of continue. According again to the Times Higher, the net revenue from fees will only replace part of the funding withdrawn over the CSR period. It looks like five years of struggle during which many departments may go under. The more you think about it, the worse it looks.

However, perhaps a better question than the one I asked a couple of paragraphs ago is the following. Why is the government intent on slashing the budgets of HE institutions, when it appears to have  let Vodafone off without paying a bill for £6 billion tax?

That amount would have been more than enough to tide the HE sector over until the new fee stream came online…


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The Day After: A Welsh Perspective

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on October 21, 2010 by telescoper

It’s well after 11am and I’m still at home. Came down last night with some sort of bug that kept me awake nearly all night with frequent visits to the smallest room in the house. Whatever it is is still rumbling on so I’ve decided to stay at home until I give myself the all clear.

This sudden attack of lurgy is probably not connected with yesterday’s dramatic announcements of the results of the comprehensive spending review, which are now being dissected and analysed all over the mainstream press, the blogosphere, and countless common rooms around the country.

I haven’t got the energy right now to go over the ramifications in detail, but encourage you to read the whole thing, which is available in a nifty online reader for your perusal. I will, however, make a few brief comments, with particular emphasis on the situation here in Wales.

First, the announcement of large cuts to the teaching budget administered by HEFCE has clearly sent shockwaves through academia. It appears that only STEM subjects will continue to receive the state contribution and in future students will have to bear the full cost of tuition (but only after they’ve graduated and started to earn over the threshold of £21K). As a supporter of the Science is Vital campaign I was relieved that we seem to won a victory, although the war is far from over. However, I feel great sadness at the cost that our success seems likely to inflict on other disciplines. If you think these are nervous times for scientists, imagine what it must be like working in the Arts and Humanities.

Of course this all applies directly only to English universities: the budgets for Higher Education in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are administered separately, so in principle things could work out very differently for Higher Education here in Wales.

However, the total amount of money available for the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) to spend is fixed by the Westminster government through the Barnett Formula. This determines the overall cash for the devolved governments by allocating a proportion of what England spends on those things that are devolved., i.e. Wales is notionally allocated an amount for Higher Education which is proportional to HEFCE’s allocation and similar for other areas of spending such as Health. Once the size of the overall pot is fixed, however, the WAG is not obliged to spend its money in the same way that England does.

Buried in the pages of the CSR document is Wales’ allocation over the CSR period, which shows real terms cut of about 7.5% over the term. However, the Welsh Assembly Government’s reaction puts it rather differently:

In real terms, our total Budget is set to fall by around 3.1% per year on average, or 12% in total over the coming four years. This means that our Budget in 2014/15 will be £1.8bn lower in real terms than it is this year. Overall, in cash terms the reductions to our Budget will be 3% over the period.

Our capital Budget has been hit particularly hard, and will be cut by 40% in real terms – 34% in cash terms – over the next four years. This substantial reduction, particularly next year, where the cut is more than 25% in real terms, will clearly have a major impact on the private as well as the public sectors.

These figures seem different from those in the CSR document, which might be because of some nuance such as the way capital expenditure is accounted. If anyone can explain the discrepancy through the comments box I’d be grateful.

The main point is, though, that if Wales is going to keep current levels of investment in Higher Education (or even cut less than the English are doing) then it will have to take the money from elsewhere, which is not going to be easy to get through the Welsh Assembly. The picture, therefore, may not be any better here in Wales than it is in England, and could well turn out even worse, depending on how the WAG sets its own spending priorities. To complicate matters further, there’s an election next year for the Welsh Assembly, so there’s a wider political perspective to consider.

Within the overall issue of Higher Education spending is the question of whether Wales will decide to protect funding for STEM disciplines at the expense of all others. The WAG has already produced a document that suggests a strong focus on the so-called regional agenda, which may mean more money going into Further Education, vocational training, and part-time studies rather than, say, research-led science. I know what I would prefer, but whatever I say, it’s the WAG’s decisions that really count. And so it should be. After all, unlike me, they were elected!

Of course, if STEM subjects aren’t protected in Wales, those of us working in those areas are likely to lose even more ground to English universities, which already out-perform us in many respects. We have to make our case as best we can and see what happens.

However, I will end with some more local news which is extremely promising. Yesterday we had a staff meeting in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University during which two extremely positive items came to light. One is that we will shortly be interviewing for the extra physics posts we advertised some time ago. Hopefully there will be a new Professor and three new Lecturers joining the staff in the very near future. I’m told we had a huge number of applicants for these positions, and the shortlists for these positions are very strong indeed. This is all very encouraging.

On top of this there is another exciting development on the horizon. After the disappointing outcome of the last RAE for physics in Wales, we have been thinking very hard at working closer with colleagues at Swansea with a view to building a sort of South Wales Physics Alliance. The departments are complementary in many ways: Swansea does particle physics, but Cardiff doesn’t; Cardiff does astronomy, but Swansea doesn’t. Where we are both relatively weak is in so-called “mainstream” physics, which is in the minority in both departments. With a bit of help, I think these two small(ish) departments could form a research institute that really challenges our competitors abroad (especially in England). I’m strongly in favour of this plan, and hope it goes ahead with full HEFCW support (including extra cash), but in this as in some many things, it’s a case of “fingers crossed”.


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