Archive for HEFCW

Local News

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on March 25, 2011 by telescoper

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.


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The Welsh University Challenge

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , on February 13, 2011 by telescoper

Last week I received an email from BBC Wales asking me to get in touch with one of their reporters. It turned out to be about a blog post I wrote some time ago concerning the recent decision by the Welsh Assembly Goverment to pay the fees of Welsh domiciled students wherever they go to study within the UK. The reporter had read my post and wanted to “pick my brains” for a story she was working on. I didn’t have time  last week as I was too busy, but I found out yesterday that the BBC had indeed run a story.

According to the BBC version, the policy of paying for Welsh students to go to English universities will cost the Welsh Assembly Government £51.7 million in 2015-6 although,  according to their projections, this will be more than offset by an expected £83.5 million coming from English students electing to study in Wales (who will have to pay their own fees).

The net cost of this policy will be about £97.6 million in the same year, allowing for the assumed net profit from English students, which will be met by cutting the core teaching grants to Welsh universities by about 35% – this is less than the cuts in England, but big cut nevertheless.

But these calculations depend on several assumptions. One is what level of fees are charged. If all English universities charge £9K (which is possible) then the outflow of cash related to Welsh students going to England increases. If Welsh university fees are capped at £6K (which also seems likely) then the cash inflow decreases. In fact, in this scenario the differential between  money in and money out completely disappears.

Moreover there is the question of how many students move in each direction. It’s possible that in the Age of Austerity more students will be forced to study near their family homes, which will also alter the balance. In addition, student places are being cut  in Wales while there is a possibility that the cap on numbers in English universities will soon be lifted. This raises the possibility that Welsh students may be forced to study in England anyway, as they might not be able find a place in Wales. We’re certainly not going to benefit much in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University from the current boom in applications, as our numbers have been cut since last year despite applications going up by 50%…

On the other hand – and I’ve anecdotal evidence for this from talking to parents at UCAS admissions days – there seems also to be a feeling that the WAG’s commitment to students is serving to convince a number of English residents that the Welsh universities are in safer hands than those in England.

So, although I strongly support the WAG’s reasons for wanting to help Welsh students as much as possible there remains considerable uncertainty about how things will pan out over the next few years. It could get very grim if reality departs significantly from the projections.

One of the arguments put forward by Leighton Andrews (the Welsh Assembly Minister responsible for Universities in Wales) is that the policy of paying for Welsh students to go to England was in fact a commitment made the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition that controls the Welsh Assembly. That’s fair enough,  but of course it makes one wonder what will happen if the balance changes with the Welsh Assembly Elections due in May 2011.

Only when we know the complexion of the new WAG will we learn whether it might revisit the policy. I’ve heard many arguments for and against, but it still strikes me as very strange to see the devolved administration spending so much of its hard-earned budget in England. That £50.7 million would go a long way if it were kept in Wales.

All things considered, however, despite all the difficulties I think the situation is much more positive for universities in Wales than in England.

Incidentally, another sensible idea being discussed by Leighton Andrews is that Welsh schools might be forced to ditch “soft” A-level subjects, such as (inevitably) Media Studies, in favour of “quality” ones (presumably including mathematics and physics). Perhaps he should do the same for Mickey Mouse degrees in Welsh universities too?

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Wales set for university mergers

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , , , , on December 22, 2010 by telescoper

Just another quick post to pass on the news just out that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) has announced that the number of universities in Wales must reduce by a half over the next two years.

I’ve argued already on this blog that there are too many small separate higher education institutions in Wales and that’s a view which is probably held by many across the sector. Mergers and/or closures have seemed to me to be inevitable for some time given the general climate of austerity and the consequent chill winds blowing through the groves of academe. According to HEFCW, the plan is that by 2013 no “region” of Wales will have any more than two universities although I’m not sure what counts as a region.

Until recently there were four different “universities” with campuses in Cardiff: Cardiff University (where I work); the University of Glamorgan (which has a presence in Cardiff, but which has its main campus in Pontypridd); the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD); and the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC).

In fact RWCMD was absorbed by the University of Glamorgan a short time ago, but still uses its old name as part of the merged institution.
Apparently one more merger will be necessary to satisfy HEFCW’s requirement, which I guess will involve UWIC also being absorbed by the University of Glamorgan. If that does happen, I hope HEFCW will keep a close eye on matters of governance. The UoG doesn’t seem to me to have a very strong track-record with respect to resafeguarding standards of academic practice.

Depending on how “region” is interpreted, there might even be pressure to include the University of Wales, Newport in an even bigger new South East Wales institution presumably headed by the University of Glamorgan.

Elsewhere in Wales the merger process is already underway. Last week, Swansea Metropolitan and the University of Wales Trinity St David announced plans to create a united institution. Going back one stage, the University of Wales Trinity St David was itself formed through the merger earlier this year of Wales’ oldest education institutions, Trinity University College, Carmarthen and the University of Wales Lampeter. Although these have merged it appears they will carry on using their existing names, which may cause some confusion but we’ll have to see how it goes.

It’s important to note that universities are officially independent bodies, so HEFCW (through which public funding is channeled to them) can’t really just tell them to merge. However, many of the smaller institutions are so dependent on state funding that they basically have to do what HEFCW tells them or face financial oblivion. Of course it will require Vice-chancellors to agree, and since presumably half of them will cease to be VCs, there will be some reluctance. Turkeys tend not to vote for Christmas. However, HEFCW has promised that “core funding will be deployed in ways which lend force to the achievement of that target”. In other words, they’ll be calling on the odd VC to make them an offer they can’t refuse…


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Uncertain Universities…

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , on November 24, 2010 by telescoper

Interesting snippets of Higher Education news today from the BBC website.

It seems that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HECFW) has voiced concerns about the sustainability of no less than five Welsh universities. Although it hasn’t named them, I think it’s likely to be those most dependent on state funding which is pretty certain to shrink drastically over the next few years. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to identify the five most likely to fold. This news has emerged as a result of a request by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act.

This comes as no surprise to me, actually. It’s clear that, for its size and population,  Wales has too many separate institutions currently regarded as “universities”. A sustainable system would have less than half the number than we have now, but managing the change to a more rational structure is bound to be a difficult process, especially if it is allowed to happen by organized neglect (which seems to be the plan). Wales drastically underfunds its Higher Education sector compared to England anyway and, with what jam there is spread over far too many institutions, there’s very little by way of resources to devote to any real sort of strategic development.

Another interesting bit of information in the BBC report is that the Welsh Assembly is expected to outline its response to the Browne Review before Christmas. I was expecting the WAG to but  the introduction of any new fee system will probably have to wait until after the Welsh Assembly elections next May.

Meanwhile Cardiff University students are holding a protest against the possible introduction of fees at the very moment I am writing this, as part of a day of action across the UK. Although there are no definite plans to increase fees in Wales at the moment because the WAG has not announced its policy, I think most of us working in academia think a big increase in fees is imminent in Wales, just as it is in England (provided the necessary legislation gets through the House of Commons). It remains to be seen, however, whether Welsh universities will be allowed to charge as much as English ones, i.e. up to £9000 per annum.


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Higher Education Spending in Wales

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on November 17, 2010 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news that the Welsh Assembly has now published its draft budget for 2011/12 (and following years). You can find the documents related to this here, the most useful one of which is this.

I haven’t got time to comment in detail but, being a university employee, I skipped directly to the section about Higher Education and found the following:

In order to direct funding to schools and skills, the majority of budget reductions have been focused on specific budgets. Higher Education will receive a reduction over the next 3 years of £51m. This amounts to some 11.8%, compared to the severe reductions proposed in England. The planned reductions will facilitate the statutory commitment to provide financial support for Higher Education students, numbers of which have increased significantly over the past two years. This does not predetermine the Welsh Assembly Government’s response to the Browne Review. The reductions include the efficiency savings we expect to be delivered through the implementation of our Higher Education strategy, For our Future. The commitment to the development of the University of the Heads of The Valleys (UHoVI) and Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol (formerly Coleg Federal) will, however, remain a priority to
be funded from this budget.

In other words, Higher Education is to bear the brunt of protecting the budgets for Schools (which remains roughly level in cash terms) and  Further Education (which is cut by about 2%). Clearly the WAG must either think that  maintaining funding for Higher Education  is a low priority or that money saved from HE can be recouped some other way (i.e. through increasing fees or cutting student support).

An 12% cut in cash terms is much worse in real terms, of course, but the draft budget doesn’t give any details of how this is going to be broken down in terms of research and teaching allocations. Moreover, the Welsh Assembly has yet to formulate a response to the Browne Review which has resulted in proposals for tuition fees up to £9000 per annum in England. Since the Welsh Assembly elections are to be held next May, it is highly unlikely that a new tuition fee system for Wales  will be in place before then. Moreover, the fact that funding is being diverted into the new institutions described above suggests that even less money than this will be available for established universities.

We also don’t know the extent to which research will be protected. In England, a cut of 40% has been applied to teaching budgets from next year, with research funding largely preserved. It appears something similar is going to happen in Scotland, but with a much smaller overall cut to the universities budget there. Will Wales follow the same pattern, or will it sacrifice any chance of having high quality research-led universities by single-mindedly pursuing its “regional agenda”?


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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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All in a day’s work

Posted in Art, Biographical, Education, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on June 30, 2010 by telescoper

I got back from yesterday’s trip to a very muggy London with a raging sore throat and a brain as sluggish as an England defender on an action replay. Come to think of it, I must be as sick as a parrot. I’m sweating like a pig too, although I don’t know whether that’s a symptom of anything nasty or just because it’s still so warm and humid. Anyway, in view of my likely incoherence I thought I’d keep it brief (again) and just mention a few salient points from the last day or two.

I went to London as part of my duties as External Examiner for the MSc Course in Astrophysics at Queen Mary, University of London. Of course all the proceedings are confidential so I’m not going to comment on anything in detail, except that I spent a bit of time going through the exam scripts before the Examiners’ Meeting in a room that did a very passable impersonation of a heat bath. When I was later joined by the rest of the Exam Board the temperature soared still further. Fortunately the business went relatively smoothly so nobody got too hot under the collar and after concluding the formal business, a few of us cooled off with a beer or two in the Senior Common Room.The students spend the next couple of months writing their dissertations now that the written exams are over, so we have to reconvene in October to determine the final results. I hope it’s a bit cooler by then.

I couldn’t stay long at Queen Mary, however, as I had a working dinner to get to. Regular readers of this blog (both of them) may remember that I’m involved in project called Beyond Entropy which is organized by the Architectural Association School of Architecture. I’ve been working on this occasionally over the months that have passed since I first blogged about it, but deadlines are now looming and we need to accelerate our activity. Last night I met with the ever-enthusiastic Stefano Rabolli Pansera at the house of Eyal Weizman by Victoria Park in the East End, handily close to Queen Mary’s Mile End campus. Assisted by food and wine we managed to crystallise our ideas into something much more tangible than we had managed to do before on our theme of Gravitational Energy. The School has offered us expert practical assistance in making prototypes and  I’m now much more optimistic about our exhibit coming together, not to mention excited at the prospect of seeing it on display at the Venice Architecture Biennale. I won’t say what we’re planning just yet, though. I’d rather wait until it’s done before unveiling it.

Incidentally, here’s a link to a  lecture by Eyal Weizman where he gives some interesting perspectives on architectural history.

Finally, and nothing to do with my trip to the Big Smoke, I noticed today on the Research Fortnight Blog that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) is planning to reduce the number of universities in Wales “significantly” from its current level of 12. This is an interesting development and one that I’ve actually argued for here. Quoting Leighton Andrews, Welsh Assembly Minister responsible for higher education, the piece says

“This target does not mean fewer students,” he said in a statement. “But it is likely to mean fewer vice chancellors. We will have significantly fewer HE institutions in Wales but they will be larger and stronger.”

How these reductions will be achieved remains to be seen, but it seems obvious that quite a few  feathers will be ruffled among the management’s plumage in some institutions and it looks like some vice chancellors will be totally plucked!

The Graveyard of Ambition?

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on May 23, 2010 by telescoper

The news today is full of speculation about the nature and extent of impending public spending cuts expected to be announced in the Queen’s Speech next Tuesday. Among the more specific figures being bandied about is a £700 million cut to the budget Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) which encompasses both scientific research and the university sector. It’s impossibly to say precisely where the axe will fall, but it’s very likely that university-based science groups in England will face a double-whammy, losing income both from HEFCE and from the Research Councils. The prospect looks particular dire for Physics & Astronomy, which rely for their research grants on the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) which savagely cut back science research even before the credit crunch arrived. If STFC gets cut any further  then the result will be even worse carnage un universities than we’ve experienced over the last year or two, especially since it looks like there will be no changes in its Executive.

Here in Wales the situation is even more complicated, as is explained in a long article in this week’s Times Higher. Cuts to the Research Councils will, of course, affect university research groups in the Principality as their remit covers the whole of the United Kingdom. However, responsibility for Higher Education in Wales is devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government. This means that any cuts to the University budget announced next week will not apply here (nor indeed in Scotland or Northern Ireland).

However, as I’ve blogged about before, it’s not obvious that this is good news for fundamental science in Wales. The Welsh Assembly Government’s blueprint for the shape of Higher Education in Wales, For Our Future, signals what could be dramatic changes in the way university funding is allocated here. There’s a lot of nervousness about how things will pan out.

Currently, most university funding in Wales comes through HEFCW in the form of recurrent grants. However the WAG has recently set up a Strategic Implementation Fund which in future supply 80% of all university funding. The new(ish) Minister responsible for Higher Education, Leighton Andrews (who will be giving a public lecture in Cardiff about the changes next week) seems to be determined to take control of the sector. It’s good to have a Minister who shows some interest in Higher Education, but I’m wary of politicians with Big Ideas.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens over the next year or so, but I think there’s an opportunity for Wales to do something truly radical and break away from systems that simply copy those in place in England with a much lower level of resource. Given that HEFCW has already been told how 80% of its funding should be administered, why bother with HEFCW at all? Scrapping this quango will remove a buffer between the universities and the WAG, which might be a dangerous thing to do, but will also save money that could be spent on higher education rather than bureaucracy. And while we’re at it, why doesn’t the WAG take Welsh universities out of the Research Excellence Framework? In the new era why should Welsh universities be judged according to English priorities?

On the teaching side, the WAG wants to see more flexible study options, more part-time degrees (including PhDs), more lifelong learning, and so on. I think that’s a reasonable thing to aim for given the particular socio-economic circumstances that pertain in Wales, but I can’t really see scope for significant numbers of part-time degrees in physics, especially at the doctoral level.

A crucial issue that has to be addressed is the proliferation of small universities in Wales. England has a population of 49.1 million, and has  91 universities (a number that many consider to be way too high in any case). The population of Wales is just 2.98 million but has 12 universities which is about twice as many per capita as in England. I for one think this situation is unsustainable, but I’m not sure to what extent mergers would be politically acceptable.

The WAG also wants to focus funding on “priority areas” that it perceives to be important to future development of industry in Wales, including health and biosciences, the digital economy, low-carbon technologies, and advanced engineering and manufacturing.  Fair enough, I say, as long as “focus on” doesn’t mean “scrap everything else but”.  The big worry for me is that research doesn’t feature very strongly at all in the WAG’s document, and it isn’t in good shape in any case. According to the last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), only around 14% of Welsh research is of world-leading quality and most of that (90%)  is concentrated in just four institutions (Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff and Swansea).

Physics in Wales did particularly poorly in the RAE and in any case only involves three universities, Bangor having closed its Physics department many years ago. Indeed the RAE panel went out of its way to make unfavourable comments about the lack of coordination in Welsh  physics – comments, I might add, that went entirely beyond the panel’s remit and should have attracted censure. Physics is also an expensive subject so if we are to do better in future we need additional investment. Cardiff University is doing its best bring this about, but I think we should explore closer ties with Swansea and explicit encouragement from the WAG.

STEM areas are woefully under-represented in Wales. Some think the WAG should seize the chance to boost this area of activity, but others think it’s already too late. According to the Times Higher,

Julie Lydon, vice-chancellor of the University of Glamorgan and the first female head of a university in Wales, says expertise in STEM will have to be developed in “distinct areas”. Given its small size, Wales must be careful to set itself realistic aims, she says.

The country faces a complex challenge, Lydon adds. “We don’t have anywhere near the range and extent of research (that we should) for our size. We’ve got to move it up a gear, and we’ve got to raise aspirations. We’ll do that in niche areas, and we’ll do that by partnership, not on our own.

“We haven’t the scope and scale; Wales isn’t a large enough sector to be able to do that across the board, but it’s an agenda that is slightly wider than the narrow view of STEM.”

A focus on STEM would neglect some areas in which Wales is strong, Lydon says. Thanks to investment from major employers such the BBC, disciplines such as media are growth areas and critical to the economy, but they are not strictly defined as STEM subjects.

No, media studies isn’t a STEM subject. Nor do I think Wales can continue to rely on its economy being propped up by public bodies such as the BBC. The expected round of wider public spending cuts I mentioned at the start of this piece will effectively scupper that argument and I’m sure privatisation of the BBC is on the new government’s agenda anyway. The future requires more ambition than this kind of thinking exemplifies. Sadly, however, ambition doesn’t seem to be something that the Welsh are particularly good at.  Dylan Thomas’s phrase “The Graveyard of Ambition” was specifically aimed at his home town of Swansea, but it does sum up an attitude you can find throughout the country: a  resolute determination to be mediocre.

 Wales is indeed a small country. So is Scotland (population about 5 million), but the Scots have for a long time placed a much higher premium on science and university education generally than the Welsh (and even the English) and they have a thriving university sector that’s the envy of other nations (including England). I think it’s time for a change of mentality.

Into the Blue

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on May 12, 2010 by telescoper

So there we are.  Britain has a new government. For the time being. Last night David Cameron became the Prime Minister of a coalition government involving the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties (as I predicted). This is hardly a surprise given the arithmetic; Labour and the LibDems wouldn’t have had enough seats to command a majority anyway. It took five days from the election for the new Prime Minister to take over, much longer than the few hours it normally takes when there is a conclusive result, but nowhere near as long as it takes on the continent where coalition-building involves smaller and more diverse parties. In the UK the three main political parties are all centre-right, at least when it comes to economic policy,  and they share a great deal of common ground, so I never thought there would be much problem with the Conservatives and LibDems coming to a deal, which they have done.

Another prediction I got right was that Gordon Brown would resign as leader of the Labour Party, which he has also done. Who will lead the Labour Party now, and for how long, is anyone’s guess.

My third prediction was that the coalition government would fall within a year and there’ll be another general election. As for that, we’ll have to wait and see. It is, after all, a marriage of convenience. I think it won’t be long before a big row develops and the coalition unravels. There’s a lot of overlap between the two parties, but it’s a long way from the left of the LibDems to the right of the Tories. I give it 6 months to the first vote of confidence, assuming the Queen’s Speech passes.

Now that we have a government once more, the unreal business of electioneering is going to be set aside and all the facts that the media have kept quiet about during the election campaign will start to come out. For example, a story in the Financial Times of 11th May (yesterday), which has clearly been on the spike for the duration of the election campaign, reveals how huge cuts in university funding are set to fall hardest on science departments. Vice-chancellors have been making contingency plans for 25% cuts in recurrent funding for some time now, and there’s an obvious temptation to cut the more expensive subjects first.

I’ve already confessed my annoyance that the main parties connived to keep the details of the deep cuts they were all planning to implement out of the election campaign. Now we’re going to find out the true extent of what’s in store, and it’s too late to change.

Niels Bohr once said “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”, and I have no idea whether I’m being overly pessimistic here, but here are  some of  the things I think will affect my own life  as an astrophysicist working in a British university.

First, it’s now clear that there’s  no chance of a reversal in the fortunes of STFC. There never was much of a chance of that, to be honest. It’s more likely now that  STFC will now face further cuts on top of what it has endured already.  Fundamental science in the UK is in for a very lean time.

Second, university funding – the part that comes directly from central government – will be cut by at least 25%, probably more.  This could be achieved in a number of ways. The unit of resource (the payment made per student by the government to a university) could be cut. The number of students funded could be cut. Students could be charged higher fees or have less generous loan arrangements. These options are by no means exclusive, of course. They might all happen.

University V-Cs will have to make very difficult decisions  where to make savings:  some may tighten budgets across the board; others may shut entire departments to save the rest.

Another issue with university funding, however, is that it is not entirely the preserve of central government.  The Scottish Assembly runs higher education in Scotland, not the Westminster government. The Scottish Funding Council has generally funded universities more generously than HEFCE has in England. It’s also much less likely to implement higher tuition fees. More generally, with only one Scottish Tory MP in Westminster and a Scottish Nationalist-flavoured Assembly government, there’s no way of knowing what will happen in Scotland or, indeed, how much strain will be generated there by an English Tory government very few Scots voted for.

In Wales its a bit different. Here higher education is run by the Welsh Assembly government, which currently comprises a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition. With the Westminster government consisting of an alliance between the other two major parties in Wales we have two levels of administration roughly orthogonal to each other. In principle, the WAG could decide to protect the university system in Wales against the level of cuts being imposed in England, but since we already get a lower unit of resource from HEFCW than HEFCE allocates to English universities, I doubt we’ll be any different in future.

So this is where we’re headed:  fewer science departments with fewer staff with increased teaching loads with less time to do research and with less funding to carry it out and vanishing career opportunities for the scientists they’re supposed to be training.

Still, at least the bankers will get their bonuses.

Cut and Thrust and Nip and Tuck

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on March 26, 2010 by telescoper

This week we received the not-altogether-unexpected news that the budgets of Welsh universities will be cut next year. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) has announced its detailed allocations for 2010-11 and all but one institution will receive a cash cut.  Cardiff University faces a cash cut of 1.74%. Lampeter is the exception, but it gets a cash increase of only 0.32%. After taking inflation into account, even they get a real terms decrease. So it’s real cuts across the board for Welsh Higher Education, with a total of about £30 million in funding taken away.

In fact, it appears that the total amount of money available to HEFCW for next year is level in cash terms compared to last year. The total amount it has distributed in recurrent grants has, however, decreased by about 2% on last year. As far as I understand it, the discrepancy between the income and expenditure is partly explained by the diversion of some funds into a new Strategic Implementation Fund(SIF) to enable HEFCW to meet the goals outlined in the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) document stating its vision for Higher Education, entitled For our Future. Some elements of SIF are included with the current allocation, but other’s are not, hence the  cash cuts seen here.In future, a larger proportion of the budget will move from recurrent, formula-based funding towards initiatives more closely aligned with the WAGs or, more likely, wasted on window-dressing and increased bureaucracy.

We’ll have to see what the impact of the new SIF arrangements will be in the longer term. In the short-term, however, the cuts (though obviously regrettable) are by no means a shock and will probably appear entirely insignificant after the General Election and the real cuts start, probably more like 20% than 2%…

The situation in Wales contrasts with Scotland where the Higher Education has grown by 1% for 2010/11.  Some Scottish universities, such as Edinburgh with a cash increase of 2.2%, have done pretty well. A small number of others, such as Stirling have been cut by 3.3% in cash terms.

Allocations for English universities were announced by HEFCE last week. There the situation is more mixed, partly to do with HEFCE rejigging its formula for research funding to concentrate it even more than last time (something that HEFCW – wisely, in my view – decided not to do..). It seems about half the 130 institutions in HEFCE’s remit get a cash increase, although when inflation is factored in the number with a real increase is much smaller. Among the universities with big cash cuts are Reading (-7.7%) and the London School of Economics (-6.3%).

As far as I understand the situation, these figures don’t include the fines for over-recruitment recently demanded by Lord Mandelson and may not take into account cuts in capital allowances, so things may be a lot worse than they appear at first sight.

However, to complicate things  a bit more, this week’s budget announced new funding for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, corresponding to an increase in numbers of about 20,000.This is only for England, as Higher Education in Wales and Scotland is not part of the remit of the Westminster government. One advantage of this for those of us in Wales is that we can’t be affected by pre-election tinkering in the same way England can.

I’m sure the news of new funding is very welcome to my colleagues across the border, but it does look to me like a bit of sticking plaster that looks likely to fall off after polling day.

Anyway, it looks to me like these results are going exactly with the form book. Scotland has always valued Higher Education more strongly than England, and Wales has usually trailed along in third place.  The real struggle hasn’t yet started, however, and we have to wait anxiously to see how hard the axe will fall once the election is over.