Thursday, February 18, 2010

New funding allocations for British universities

The Times Higher Education reports that:

"[. . .] Half of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, most of the 1994 Group of small research-intensive universities, and almost all the teaching-focused institutions in England are set to lose research funding in real terms as a result of a change to the funding formula.

But under the change announced last week, a handful of elite universities and specialist colleges are in line for big increases in quality-related research funding, modelling suggests.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has altered the funding formula to give a bigger weighting to "world-leading" (4*) research in the 2010-11 allocations. It said the move was an "initial step" to addressing the Government's desire for greater concentration of research. [. . .]

[. . .] Teaching-led universities, which collectively wrested millions of pounds in funding from their research-led rivals following the 2008 research assessment exercise, will almost all lose out, although Hefce will continue to fund excellence wherever it is found. [. . .]." (The story can be found here.)

The ratio between 4*:3*:2* was 7:3:1 (more or less predicted by this blog). The new ratio is 9:3:1. 1* and below ranked research will continue to go without funding.

This will have some effect on subjects, or so we might speculate. Several philosophy programmes had healthy percentages of 4* quality so this may be better news for this subject.

However, this is perhaps much worse news for colleagues in politics and international studies. This field was given one of the lower "grade point averages" and, thus, had a smaller amount of 4* work identified. Many colleagues noted that the rankings between subjects ought not be seen as fully comparable. In other words, if English Literature was found to have x amount of 4* and Economics to have x + y of 4*, this data should not be interpreted as Economics being more world leading (necessarily) than English Literature. Of course, this is not how the numbers have been used and politics fared poorly from the start. This may get a bit worse now.

Perhaps the best way to play the game is to have departments producing 4* work as this will receive more funding pound-for-pound than other work. One of the subjects that produced the highest percentage of 4* was media studies. Perhaps we should turn subjects from "politics " and "philosophy" to "politics and media studies" and "philosophy and media studies" in order to enter the media studies assessment panel . . . ?

Let me end on the following note. I think university leaders have a very difficult task. Many universities concentrated funding in areas of strength. The idea was a strong showing would yield research cash gains. For some universities, this meant more funding in science and others focussed in different areas.

As readers may know, one result of the RAE2008 was that government decided to change the rules of the game. It ring-fence protected cash set for "STEM" subjects, but not elsewhere. Thus, philosophy and politics departments scoring high would not then receive the cash they otherwise would have received.

Now the game is changed yet again. Universities will be trying to plan their futures already given the cuts in funding recently announced. Now they must also factor into these plans changed funding levels based upon the 2008 assessment specifically designed to 'concentrate' funding in fewer hands (and, by extension, it is also designed to effectively hurt as many universities as reasonably possible: with concentration, there are fewer winners and more losers).

One can only sense there is much change sweeping through the higher education sector. It is far from clear how the specific changes made will maintain or improve the current system, but I am open to suggestions. Please release me from my gloom!

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