Public Generic Funding

Funding received through higher education funding councils amounts to less than a third of all research funding for HEIs in the UK.[1] This has been criticised for limiting academic freedom and threatening the research base, especially as part of the generic funding is needed to match not fully funded projects based on other funding streams.[2] As mentioned above (section “The Governmental Structure”), HEFCE is responsible in England for generic funding allocation. HEFCE receives its budget and directions on how to distribute it directly from the government.[3] HEIs funded by HEFCE need to comply with the requirements set out in HEFCE’s memorandum of assurance and accountability[4] which inter alia set out rules on transparency, efficiency and accountability (including the use of full costing for all activities) as well as requiring the institutions to follow statutes and comply with quality assurance standards.[5]

Even the generic funding HEFCE distributes (also referred to as ‘recurrent funding’) is calculated using partly competitive parameters. In the ‘main research funding method’ (or ‘mainstream quality-related research funding’, for short ‘mainstream QR’) it is first determined how much money will be spent on a certain subject in general. The amount to be given to an individual HEI is then calculated on the basis of research volume, costs and quality. The latter is estimated on the basis of a peer review mechanism called the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which measures the strength of outputs, environment (measured in vitality and sustainability) and impact (measured in reach and significance).[6] The latter, which had been newly introduced for the allocation period starting in 2015/16, has been criticised as threatening academic freedom and undermining scholarship.[7] More generally, the REF has been seen critically as creating employment issues (demotivation and stress with selectivity of staff submitted) as well as general concerns about its suitability (potential subject bias in the use of metrics or personal bias in the peer review process).[8] Even the government itself acknowledged in the 2015 Green Paper that the REF had become too costly and burdensome, that there are negative views in the sector and that it had created ‘“industries” [...] around the REF’ including practices such as ‘multiple “mock REFs”, bringing in external consultants and taking academics away from teaching and research’. Yet, the government intends to keep the REF, as it believes it to create accountability and it is encouraging further focus on impact and exploitation of results. However, it is planned to reform the REF to a more efficient and effective processes which may involve the use of more metrics.[9] To this end a review had been commissioned which suggests in its final report certain avenues for reform including submission of all staff, a broader notion of impact and generally more investment into generic funding.[10]

In addition to ‘mainstream QR’, HEFCE allocates recurrent funding for PhD supervision based on numbers and quality, supports charity funded research by paying overhead costs, rewards private sector research and supports national research libraries. Finally, HEFCE runs additional programmes such as the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF, also referred to as Third Stream Funding or knowledge exchange funding), which aims at encouraging knowledge transfer, and non-recurrent funding such as capital grants and support for national facilities which are ‘designed to provide incentives for institutions’ to follow strategic aims. HEIs can freely administer HEFCE funding they receive unless it is earmarked for a specific purpose.[11]

  • [1] Office for National Statistics 2016, Table 1.
  • [2] UCU 2014, p. 2; Stern 2016, pp. 33, 35. The recent Stern Review also suggests that publicationsstay with the university at which they have been researched. While this would limit last minutepoaching of well performing academics which has been perceived as a problem around the submissionperiod of the last REF (Stern 2016, p. 34), it might also put constraints on academic mobility.
  • [3] Thus far the relevant department was BIS. Presumably in the future HEFCE (or UKRI) willreceive the research budget from BEIS. The planned Higher Education and Research Act in s 93only refers to ‘the Secretary of State’ without further specification.
  • [4] HEFCE 2016b.
  • [5] See Farrington and Palfreyman 2012, para 4.22 seq, 4.30 seq; HEFCE 2016a, p. 32 seq.
  • [6] REF (2014) Assessment criteria and level definitions. Accessed 4 August 2016, HEFCE 2016a, p. 6 seq, 23.
  • [7] BBC News, ‘Top scientists attack funding plan’ BBC News (4 December 2009) Accessed 4 December 2009, Stern 2016, p. 16 seq.
  • [8] UCU 2013, 2014, p. 6 seq, 9; Stern 2016, p. 33 seq.
  • [9] BIS 2015, pp. 70, 72 seq.
  • [10] Stern 2016, p. 33 seq.
  • [11] See on HEFCE funding PACEC and the Centre for Business Research (University ofCambridge) 2009; Farrington and Palfreyman 2012, para 4.22 seq, 4.30 seq; HEFCE 2016a, p. 3seq, 6 seq, 23 seq, 33.
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