‘Higher Ambitions’ for University Education

Last Friday the BES attended two a half-day workshop organised by the Biochemical Society and Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) which provided an overview of the funding landscape for UK higher education. The session emphasised the many pressures and challenges which will face universities in the period of fiscal tightening ahead.

Peter Heathcote, Head of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary University of London outlined the major shift facing universities; from blue skies research to more targeted research priorities and large multi-disciplinary, multi-investigator applications for funding. Paul Hubbard, Head of Research Policy at HEFCE, then delivered a presentation outlining the basics of the dual support system for universities (with the Funding Councils, such as HEFCE, providing a block grant and Research Councils providing funding for projects and programmes). He outlined HEFCEs plans in terms of ‘impact’, stating that this would be assessed at the level of the Department, not the individual, with HEFCE examining the connection back from impact to high-quality research. Both Labour and the Conservatives have declared that the dual funding system will be secure under any new government, although there have been suggestions from both that there may be more strategic direction of the research base than in the past. Both are supportive of the ‘impact’ agenda.

Finally, Helen Thorne, Head of Research Policy at the Russell Group (the association of 20 of the UK’s leading research intensive universities) outlined the current research funding situation and broader policy context. The Government has announced cuts of £915m to research and higher education, with cuts to research and teaching infrastructure: where £600m of these cuts will fall precisely is not yet known. It seems that universities are entering a period of extreme uncertainty, in terms of announced funding cuts and with more potentially to come.

The Government’s recently published (November 2009) blueprint for higher education, “Higher Ambitions”, makes it clear that in a period of financial uncertainty and tightening of the public purse universities are going to have to diversify their income streams. Partnerships with business, philanthropy, legacy giving and tapping into funding from abroad are all mentioned as potential sources of finance. The emphasis of the strategy is on using universities as a means to re-build the UK’s economy. Universities need to work in partnership with businesses to deliver graduates with the employment skills which business requires and need to deliver courses in subjects relevant to Britain’s economic future: “institutions unable to meet such strategic needs can expect to see their funding reduced to provide funding for those who can.”

‘Higher Ambitions’ states that support for STEM subjects will be enhanced. However, ‘concentration’ runs as a theme throughout the report: concentration of funds in centres of excellence, with enhanced multi-disciplinary collaboration between universities to create these, and concentration on areas of research in which the UK can excel. Universities will be required to “withdraw activities of lower priority and value…invest[ing] more in high priority programmes.” The overall picture painted by the strategy is one of diverse institutions, specialising in different areas, providing a range of qualifications (three-year degrees, part-time courses, foundation degrees, e-learning), enhancing the national, and their regional, economies, working directly with business and supported by a diverse range of funding sources. The Government acknowledges the need to direct resources more strategically “if [these] are to achieve public policy goals”, and “in future new priorities will be chiefly supported by redistribution of existing funds rather than provision of new money.”

There is no doubt that after the relatively ‘benign’ environment in which universities have operated for the past several years, difficult decisions will need to be made after the general election and throughout the next few years to meet government policy priorities and to ensure a sustainable financial footing for institutions.

Research funding and support is one of the BES’s four major policy priorities. Read more about our previous work in this area.