Archive for university funding

(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….


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..


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”?