Archive for STEM

Tuition Fee Caps

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

I know it’s a Bank Holiday, but I’ve been thinking…

About a week ago I posted an item arguing that the current system of higher education funding is detrimental to the health of STEM disciplines (i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The main reason for this is that present funding arrangements fail to address the real difference in cost of degree courses in various disciplines: the income to a University for a student doing Physics is about £10.5K whereas for a student doing, say, English it is £9K. I would  estimate the extra cost for the former corresponds to at least a factor two and probably more. That’s partly because Physics requires laboratory space and equipment (and related technical support) that English does not, but also because Physics students receive many more contact hours with academic staff.  The issue is just as much about arts students being ripped off (as they undoubtedly are being) as it is a strategic failure to protect the sciences.

The problem is that the Council responsible for distributing funding (HEFCE) is strapped for cash, so is unable to fund STEM disciplines at the higher level of resource that it used to.  Since the government has decided, in its  (finite) wisdom, to transfer most of the cost of higher education to the students, HEFCE can now exert very little influence on how universities plan their portfolio of courses. Since it is a lot cheaper and easier to expand capacity in Arts & Social Sciences faculties than in the more expensive STEM disciplines, this is an incentive for Universities to turn away from the Sciences. Given our economic predicament this policy is simply perverse. We need more scientists and engineers, not fewer.

This morning I read an article in the Times Higher about the present £9K tuition fee cap. Not surprisingly the Russell Group of self-styled “elite” Universities wants it lifted, presumably so its Vice-Chancellors can receive even bigger pay rises. But that’s not the point. The article made me think of a cunning (or perhaps daft) plan, which I’m floating here with the prediction that people will shoot it down through the comments box.

Now before I go on, I just want to make it clear that I’m not – and never have been – in favour of the present funding system. I don’t object to the principle that students who can afford to should contribute to the cost of higher education, but the arrangements we’re stuck with are indefensible and I don’t think they will last long into the next Parliament. It’s telling that, only a decade after introducing tuition fees, Germany is now scrapping them. I’d prefer a hybdrid system in which the taxpayer funds scholarships for STEM disciplines and other strategically important areas, while leaving universities to charge fees for other disciplines.

However, since we’ve been lumbered with a silly system, it’s worth exploring what might be achieved by working within it. There doesn’t seem to be much creative thinking going on in the coalition, and the Labour Party just says it would reduce the fee cap to £6K which would squeeze all academic disciplines equally, without doing anything about the anomalies mentioned above.

My  idea is quite simple. I propose that universities be entitled to lift their fee levels for STEM subjects by an amount X, provide that they reduce the fees for Arts and Social Sciences students by the same amount. The current fee level is £9K for all disciplines, so an example might be for STEM subjects to charge £12K while A&SS (if you pardon the abbreviation) get £6K. That would achieve the factor of two differential I mentioned above.

The advantages of this proposal are that it gives an incentive for universities to promote STEM disciplines and more properly reflects the difference in cost of the different subjects, without increasing the cost to the Treasury. In fact only about 25% of students study in STEM disciplines, at least for the moment, so the cost of fee loans will actually go down

The biggest potential flaw is  that increasing the cost to STEM students would put them off. There’s simply no data on which to base an argument as to whether this would be the case or not. I suspect however that a difference in price would be perceived by many as a difference in value.

Anyway, it’s just an idea. That’s what blogs are for. Thinking out loud as it were. Feel free to object..

The Threat to STEM from HEFCE’s Funding Policies

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , , , on May 19, 2013 by telescoper

In my job here as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS)  at the University of Sussex, I’ve been been spending a lot of time recently on trying to understand the way the School’s budget works, sorting out what remains to be done for this financial year, and planning the budget for next year. In the course of doing all that it has become clear to me that the current funding arrangements from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) are extremely worrying for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

Before the introduction  of the £9K tuition fees this academic year (i.e. in the `old regime’), a University would receive income from tuition fees of up to £3375 per student and from a `unit of resource’ or `teaching grant’ that depends on the subject. As shown in the upper part of Table C below which is taken from a HEFCE document:

Budgets

In the old regime, the  maximum income per student in Physics was thus £8,269 whereas for a typical Arts/Humanities student the maximum was £5,700. That means there was a 45% difference in funding between these two types of subject. The reason for this difference is that subjects such as physics are much more expensive to teach. Not only do disciplines like physics require expensive laboratory facilities (and associated support staff), they also involve many more contact hours between students and academic staff than in, e.g. an Arts subject.  However, the differential is not as large as you might think: there’s only a factor two difference in teaching grant between the lowest band (D, including Sociology, Economics, Business Studies, Law and Education) and the STEM band B (including my own subject, Physics). The real difference in cost is much larger than that, and not just because science subjects need laboratories and the like.

To give an example, I was talking recently to a student from a Humanities department at a leading University (not my employer). Each week she gets 3 lectures and one two-hour seminar, the latter  usually run by a research student. That’s it for her contact with the department. That meagre level of contact is by no means unusual, and some universities offer even less tuition than that.

In my School, MPS, a typical student can expect around 20 contact hours per week including lectures, exercise classes, laboratory sessions, and a tutorial (usually in a group of four). The vast majority of these sessions are done by full-time academic staff, not PDRAs or PhD students, although we do employ such folks in laboratory sessions and for a very small number of lectures. It doesn’t take Albert Einstein to work out that 20 hours of staff time costs a lot more than 3, and that’s even before you include the cost of the laboratories and equipment needed to teach physics.

Now look at what happens in the `new regime’, as displayed in the lower table in the figure. In the current system, students still pay the same fee for STEM and non-STEM subjects (£9K in most HEIs) but the teaching grant is now £1483 for Physics and nothing at all for Bands C and D. The difference in income is thus just £1,483 or in percentage terms, a difference of just 16.4. Worse than this, there’s no requirement that this extra resource be spent on the disciplines with which it is associated anyway. In most universities, all the tuition income goes into central coffers and is dispersed to Schools and Departments according to the whims of the University Management.

Of course the new fee levels have led to an increase in income to Universities across all disciplines, which is welcome because it should allow institutions to improve the quality of their teaching bu purchasing better equipment, etc. But the current arrangements as a powerful disincentive for a university to invest in expensive subjects, such as Physics, relative to Arts & Humanities subjects such as English or History. It also rips off  staff and students in those disciplines, the students because they are given very little teaching in return for their fee, and the staff because we have to work far harder than our colleagues in other disciplines, who  fob off  most of what little teaching their supposed to do onto PhD students badged as Teaching Assistants. It is fortunate for this country that scientists working in its universities show such immense dedication to teaching as well as research that they’re prepared to carry on working in a University environment that is so clearly biased against STEM disciplines.

To get another angle on this argument, consider the comments made by senior members of the legal profession who are concerned about the drastic overproduction of law graduates. Only about half those doing the Bar Professional Training Course after a law degree stand any chance of getting a job as a lawyer in the UK. Contrast this with the situation in science subjects, where we don’t even produce enough graduates to ensure that schools have an adequate supply of science teachers. The system is completely out of balance. Here at Sussex, only about a quarter of students take courses in STEM subjects; nationally the figure is even lower, around 20%…

I don’t see anything on the horizon that will alter this ridiculous situation. STEM subjects will continue to be stifled as universities  follow the incentive to invest in cheaper subjects and will continue to overproduce graduates in other areas. The present Chief Executive of HEFCE is stepping down. Will whoever takes over from him have the guts to do anything about this anti-STEM bias?

I doubt the free-market ideologues in Westminster would even think of intervening either, because the only two possible changes are: (i) to increase the fee for STEM subjects relative to others; and (ii) to increase the teaching grant. Option (i) would lead to a collapse in demand for the very subjects it was intended to save and option (ii) would involve increasing public expenditure, which is anathema to the government even if it is an investment in the UK’s future. Or maybe it’s making a complete botch of the situation deliberately, as part of a cunning plan to encourage universities to go private?

(Lack of) Diversity in STEM Subjects

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on May 10, 2013 by telescoper

Among the things I learnt over the last few days was some interesting information about the diversity (or, rather, lack of diversity) of undergraduates taking undergraduate degrees in STEM subjects in the UK universities. For those of you not up on the lingo, `STEM’ is short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Last year the Institute of Physics produced a report that contains a wealth of statistical information about the demographics of the undergraduate population, from which the following numbers are only a small component.

Physics

Maths

Chemistry

Engineering

Female

21%

41%

44%

12%

BME

11%

24%

20%

30%

Socio-Economic

37%

42%

43%

51%

Non-EU

5%

12%

7%

32%

For completeness I should point out that these numbers refer to first-year undergraduates in 2010-11; I have no particular reason to suppose there has been a qualitative change since then. “BME” stands for “Black and Minority Ethnic”, and “Socio-Economic” refers to students whose with parents not employed in managerial or professional positions.

Overall, the figures here at the University of Sussex are roughly in line with, but slightly better than, these national statistics; the proportion of female students in our Physics intake for 2010/11, for example, was 27%.

There are some interesting (and rather disappointing) things to remark. First is that the proportion of Physics students who are female remains low; Physics scores very badly on ethnic diversity too. Mathematics on the other hand seems a much more attractive subject for female students.  Notice also how Physics and Chemistry attract a very small proportion of overseas students compared to Engineering.

In summary, therefore, we can see that Physics is a subject largely studied by white  middle-class European males. What are we doing wrong?

Despite considerable efforts to promote Physics to a more diverse constituency,  the proportion of, e.g., female physics students seems to have been bumping along at around 20% for ages.  Interestingly, all the anecdotal evidence suggests that those women who do Physics at University do disproportionately well, in the sense that female students constitute a  much larger fraction of First-class graduates than 20%. This strongly suggests that the problem lies at school level; some additional IOP information and discussion on this can be found here.

I’m just passing these figures on for information, as I’m quite often asked about them during, e.g., admissions-related activities. I don’t have any really compelling suggestions, but I would like to invite the blogosphere to comment and/or make suggestions as to promote diversity in STEM disciplines.

Political Correlation

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics with tags , , , , on August 28, 2010 by telescoper

I was just thinking that it’s been a while since I posted anything in my bad statistics category when a particularly egregious example jumped up out of this week’s Times Higher and slapped me in the face. This one goes wrong before it even gets to the statistical analysis, so I’ll only give it short shrift here, but it serves to remind us all how feeble is many academic’s grasp of the scientific method, and particularly the role of statistics within it. The perpetrator in this case is Paul Whiteley, who is Professor of Politics at the University of Essex. I’m tempted to suggest he should go and stand in the corner wearing a dunce’s cap.

Professor Whiteley argues that he has found evidence that refutes the case that increased provision of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates are -in the words of Lord Mandelson – “crucial to in securing future prosperity”. His evidence is based on data relating to 30 OECD countries: on the one hand, their average economic growth for the period 2000-8 and, on the other, the percentage of graduates in STEM subjects for each country over the same period. He finds no statistically significant correlation between these variates. The data are plotted here:

This lack of correlation is asserted to be evidence that STEM graduates are not necessary for economic growth, but in an additional comment (for which no supporting numbers are given), it is stated that growth correlates with the total number of graduates in all subjects in each country. Hence the conclusion that higher education is good, whether or not it’s in STEM areas.

So what’s wrong with this analysis? A number of things, in fact, but I’ll start with what seems to me the most important conceptual one. In order to test a hypothesis, you have to look for a measurable effect that would be expected if the hypothesis were true, measure the effect, and then decide whether the effect is there or not. If it isn’t, you have falsified the hypothesis.

Now, would anyone really expect the % of students graduating in STEM subjects  to correlate with the growth rate in the economy over the same period? Does anyone really think that newly qualified STEM graduates have an immediate impact on economic growth? I’m sure even the most dedicated pro-science lobbyist would answer “no” to that question. Even the quote from Lord Mandelson included the crucial word “future”! Investment in these areas is expected to have a long-term benefit that would probably only show after many years. I would have been amazed had there been a correlation between measures relating to such a short period, so  absence of one says nothing whatsoever about the economic benefits of education in STEM areas.

And another thing. Why is the “percentage of graduates” chosen as a variate for this study? Surely a large % of STEM graduates is irrelevant if the total number is very small? I would have thought the fraction of the population with a STEM degree might be a better choice. Better still, since it is claimed that the overall number of graduates correlates with economic growth, why not show how this correlation with the total number of graduates breaks down by subject area?

I’m a bit suspicious about the reliability of the data too. Which country is it that produces less than 3% of its graduates in science subjects (the point at the bottom left of the plot). Surely different countries also have different types of economy wherein the role of science and technology varies considerably. It’s tempting, in fact, to see two parallel lines in the above graph – I’m not the only one to have noticed this – which may either be an artefact of small numbers chosen or might indicate that some other parameter is playing a role.

This poorly framed hypothesis test, dubious choice of variables, and highly questionable conclusions strongly suggest that Professor Whiteley had made his mind up what result he wanted and simply dressed it up in a bit of flimsy statistics. Unfortunately, such pseudoscientific flummery is all that’s needed to convince a great many out there in the big wide world, especially journalists. It’s a pity that this shoddy piece of statistical gibberish was given such prominence in the Times Higher, supported by a predictably vacuous editorial, especially when the same issue features an article about the declining standards of science journalism. Perhaps we need more STEM graduates to teach the others how to do statistical tests properly.

However, before everyone accuses me of being blind to the benefits of anything other than STEM subjects, I’ll just make it clear that, while I do think that science is very important for a large number of reasons, I do accept that higher education generally is a good thing in itself , regardless of whether it’s in physics or mediaeval latin, though I’m not sure about certain other subjects.  Universities should not be judged solely by the effect they may or may not have on short-term economic growth.

Which brings me to a final point about the difference between correlation and causation. People with more disposal income probably spend more money on, e.g., books than people with less money. Buying books doesn’t make you rich, at least not in the short-term, but it’s a good thing to do for its own sake. We shouldn’t think of higher education exclusively on the cost side of the economic equation, as politicians and bureaucrats seem increasingly to be doing,  it’s also one of the benefits.


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Science versus Engineering?

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on July 13, 2010 by telescoper

I suppose it was inevitable that there would be infighting as academics jostle for an increase intheir share of what is likely to be a diminishing level of research funding to be announced at the end of the ongoing Comprehensive Spending Review.  The first professional society to try to barge its way to the front of the queue appears to be the Royal Academy of Engineering, which has written to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in terms that make it clear that they think egineering should prosper at the expense of research in fundamental physics.

To quote the RAEng:

we believe that research should be concentrated on activities from which a contribution to the economy, within the short to medium term, is foreseeable. I recognise that this calls for significant changes in practice but I see no alternative in the next decade. This may mean disinvesting in some areas in order properly to invest in others.

And where should the axe fall?

BIS should also consider the productivity of investment by discipline and then sub-discipline. Once the cost of facilities is taken into account it is evident that ‘Physics and Maths’ receive several times more expenditure per research active academic compared to those in ‘Engineering and Technology’. This ratio becomes significantly more extreme if the comparison is made between particle physics researchers and those in engineering and technology. Much of particle physics work is carried out at CERN and other overseas facilities and therefore makes a lower contribution to the intellectual infrastructure of the UK compared to other disciplines. Additionally, although particle physics research is important it makes only a modest contribution to the most important challenges facing society today, as compared with engineering and technology where almost all the research is directly or indirectly relevant to wealth creation.

Obviously whoever wrote this hasn’t heard of the World Wide Web, invented at CERN – precisely the place singled out for vitriol.

I couldn’t agree less with what the RAEng say in their submission to BIS, but instead of going on a rant here I’ll direct you to John Butterworth’s riposte, which says most of what I would want to say, but I would like to add one comment along the lines I’ve blogged about before.

The reason I think that the RAEng is precisely wrong is that I think the Treasury (on behalf of the taxpayer) should only be investing in research that wouldn’t otherwise be carried out. In other words, the state should fund academic esearch precisely because of its “blue sky” nature, not in spite of it.

Conversely, engineering and technology R&D should be funded primarily by the commercial sector precisely because it can yield short-term economic benefits. The decline of the UK’s engineering base has been caused by the failure of British companies to invest sufficiently in research, expecting instead that the Treasury should fund it and all they have to do is cash in later.

I’m not calling for the engineering and technology budgets to be cut – I don’t have such a blinkered view as the RAEng – but I would argue that a much greater share should be funded by private companies. This also goes for energy research. As Martin Rees pointed out in a recent Reith Lecture, the UK’s energy companies spend a pathetically small proportion of their huge profits on R&D. The politicians should be “persuading” industry to get invest more in the future development of their products rather than expecting the taxpayer to fund it. I agree that the UK economy needs “rebalancing” but part of the balance  is private companies need to develop a much stronger sense of the importance of R&D investment.

And, while I’m tut-tutting about the short-sighted self-interest displayed by the RAEng, let me add that, following the logic I’ve stated above,  I see a far stronger case for the state to support research in history and the arts than, e.g. engineering and computer science. I’d even argue that large commercial companies should think about sponsoring pure science in much the same way as they do with the performing art exhibitions and the Opera. We need as a society to learn to celebrate curiosity-driven research not only as a means to economic return (which it emphatically is) but also as something worth doing for its own sake.

Finally, and most depressingly of all, let me point out that the Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Philip Greenish, sits on the Council of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, an organisation whose aims include

To promote and support, by any means, high-quality basic, strategic and applied research and related post-graduate training in astronomy, particle physics, space science and nuclear physics.

Clearly, he should either disown the statements produced by the RAEng or resign from STFC Council. Unless he was put there deliberately as part of the ongoing stitch-up of British physics. If that’s the case we all have the dole queue to look forward to.

Universities Challenged

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , on June 10, 2010 by telescoper

The news headlines over the last couple of days have been dominated by remarks made by David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, who has called for a radical overhaul of the way UK universities are organized and funded. Predictably, his comments set alarm bells ringing about the savage cuts likely to be coming our way, but I hope it’s not just about slash-and-burn and that some imagination is applied to the problem of sorting out the mess the system has become. We’ll see.

According to a piece in the Guardian, for example, Willetts suggested that some students could study at smaller local colleges instead of going to a big university, but these colleges would teach courses designed and administered by the larger “elite” institutions, such as the University of London. This suggestion isn’t  exactly new because it’s actually how things used to work many years ago. In fact, Nottingham University, where I used to work used to be Nottingham University College and its degrees, along with those of a number of similar provincial universities, were University of London degrees. Nottingham University only got the power to award its own degrees in 1948. Of course, there wasn’t really such a thing as distance learning in those days, so there’s a possibility that a 21st Century revival of this basic idea could turn out very differently in terms of how things are actually taught.

On the up side of this suggestion is the fact that it would be a lot easier to maintain standards, if examinations were set by a common body. On the down side is the fact that the distinctive flavour of speciality courses taught in different colleges, which is a strength of research-led teaching, would be lost. In between these positives and negatives there is a huge grey area of questions, such as where the funding would go, precisely which universities should administer the changes and so on. A lot of thinking and planning will be  needed before anything like this could be implemented.

Let me add two more specific comments to this. First, I think Willetts’ suggestion would make a lot of sense here in Wales where it could be easily implemented by returning to the old University of Wales.  As I’ve mentioned before, as well as suffering from many of the problems besetting the English university system, the Principality has a few extra ones all its own. Among the most pressing is the proliferation of small colleges and the consequent duplication of administrative systems. I think a great deal of money could be saved and teaching quality improved by cutting out the unnecessary bureaucracy and having the smaller places administered by a larger central University (as Willetts imagined with the University of London).

My other comment is specific to my own subject, physics (and astronomy). The problem with this – and other laboratory based STEM subjects – is that it’s very difficult to imagine how they can actually be taught at all at degree level without access to research laboratories for, e.g., project work. This is why physics is only taught in 40-0dd of the 131 universities and colleges around the UK. You can call me old-fashioned, but I just don’t think it’s either possible or desirable to separate teaching from research in science subjects in the way this plan seems to suggest. I know some colleagues of mine disagree strongly with this, but there you go.

Behind this proposal is the issue of student funding, as it is at least partly motivated by the suggestion that students could stay at home and study at a local college instead of moving to a university further away, which would necessitate them taking out student loans which the Treasury has to pay out. 

There’s also the issue of fees. At the moment students in England are expected to pay a flat-rate annual fee of £3225. In addition to this the government pays to the University concerned an amount called the “Unit of Resource”. Last year, in England, the basic amount was around £4K but there is multiplier for more expensive courses. Clinical medicine, for example, attracts four times the basic rate. Subjects like physics and chemistry get a multiplier of 1.7 (so each student comes with around £6.7K of funding). Subjects with no laboratory component, i.e. most Arts and Humanities courses,  just get the bog-standard amount.

I think there’s an obvious problem with this system, namely that physics (and other science subjects) are  much more expensive to teach than the formula allows for. The total income per student for an arts subject would be about £7.2K, while that for physics is about £10K. Why bother with all that expensive laboratory space and shiny new kit when the funding differential is so small. That’s another reason why so many universities have scrapped their physics departments in favour of cheaper disciplines that generate a profit much more easily.

Coincidentally I attended a lunch yesterday with some of our soon-to-be-graduating students. I’ve been a member of a committee working on updating our Physics courses and we wanted to discuss the proposed changes with them. One of the group was a mature student who had already done an English degree (at another university). She said that a physics drgee was much harder work, but was impressed at how much more contact she had with staff. Like most physics department, virtually all our teaching is done by permanent academic staff. Students doing  Physics at Cardiff get about three times as many contact hours with staff as students doing English. It’s unfair to compare apples with oranges, but I’m convinced the funding model is stacked against STEM subjects.

The awful financial climate we’re in has led to a general sense of resignation that the government contribution to university education (the Unit of Resource) is going to decrease and the student contribution go up to compensate. However, there’s a Catch-22 here for the Treasury. If the tuition fee goes up students will have to borrow more, and the Treasury doesn’t want to take on more  subsidised student loans. It seems much more likely to me that the cuts will be achieved by simply reducing the number of funded places. However, in the light of what I argued above, I think this is a great opportunity to think about what is the correct Unit of Resource for different subjects. If we all agree the country needs more scientists and engineers, not less, I’d argue that funded places elsewhere should be cut, and that the difference between arts and science units of resource also be substantially increased.

I’d even go so far as to suggest that there should be zero-rated courses, i.e. those which students are welcome to take if they pay the full cost but to which the government will not contribute at all. That should put an end to the Mickey Mouse end of Higher Education provision once and for all.

PS. A review of the tuition fee system is currently taking place but isn’t due to report until the autumn. It is led by Lord Browne who was formerly the boss of BP. I wonder if there’ll be any leaks?

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.