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The effects of cutting QR in England by 15 per cent

Cuts of 15 per cent in the research funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England could redraw the map of research in England, with dozens of universities, hundreds of departments and tens of thousands of researchers potentially losing all their funding.

UPDATE. You can view the full institution-by-institution spreadsheet of losers cited by the Times yesterday and Guardian today here.

Research Benchmarks has looked at three scenarios for implementing cuts of 15 per cent in HEFCE’s £1.6 billion QR budget. The powerful impact on many different kinds of institutions in all three shows there is no easy option for cuts as ministers finalise their plans.

The three scenarios have been inspired by the different emphasis placed on cuts by Vince Cable, David Willetts and Universities UK.

Cable’s approach shares the pain most widely, but there would still be medical schools losing around 30 per cent of their income, and the top end of the Russell Group would be badly hit. Imperial College London for example would lose 10 per cent of its income.

Willetts’ approach has been to emphasise the need to shore up strong departments. That approach leads to a massive loss of diversity in the system with over 40 institutions and 20,000 researchers being excluded from funding altogether.

UUK has suggested introducing some kind of threshold into the funding formula used to allocate QR. That approach could exclude over 800 departments from funding, and cost leading lights such as Liverpool and Cranfield almost 30 per cent of their income.

The modelling shows that whatever course ministers ultimately choose, cuts of this magnitude will lead to a historic re-drawing of the research map in England’s universities.

Inspired by Vince Cable

In his big speech on science earlier this month, Cable hinted at withdrawing funding from the 45 per cent of research rated 2* or below in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise. Unfortunately, that only accounts for about 10 per cent of Mainstream QR. To get to 15 per cent, you also have to start cutting into funding for 3* research.

This approach is the most consistent with previous policy at HEFCE and could be presented as a straightforward tightening of the screw of concentration in tough times. Only 30-odd departments lose funding altogether. Of the options, it spreads the pain most widely. But it comes with significant downsides:

  • Big research-intensive universities are hit hard. Liverpool and Newcastle both lose more than 15 per cent.
  • Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial all lose about 10 per cent.
  • Losses of 20 – 70 per cent for new universities
  • Some medical schools hit hard – eg St Georges in London loses 28 per cent.
  • Many weaker departments see most of their researchers excluded from funding and their grant reduced by around 40 per cent.
  • Some physics departments lose a quarter of their funding.

Inspired by David Willetts

[This is the scenario that generates the spreadsheet mentioned above]

David Willetts has spoken of the need to support excellent departments. This approach can be put into effect by restricting funding to those departments with the largest power – a combination of quality and volume. (To be precise, quality as measured in the RAE 2008 and adjusted according to HEFCE’s current [9 3 1 0 0] formula and multiplied by the number of staff submitted).

This protects departments that are both big and good, maintaining critical mass across the system but at the expense of smaller, sometimes higher quality departments. This keeps the cuts in all the Golden Triangle institutions to no more than 5 per cent. But because big departments take most of the money anyway, the consequence of this policy would be a massive decrease in the diversity of the system:

  • 1021 departments lose all funding, more than half the total of 1844.
  • These departments contain over 20,000 researchers, many of whom will likely be driven out of research altogether.
  • More than 40 institutions lose all funding.
  • The likes of Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield no better off than they were in the Vince Cable scenario.

Inspired by UUK

Universities UK has introduced the idea of limiting funding to universities that cross a threshold of quality. We looked at one way of putting this into practice in Research Fortnight recently. Another way is simply to restrict funding to those departments with the highest quality, based on the 2008 RAE results and the [9 3 1 0 0] weightings in use by HEFCE currently.

This again prioritises excellence with the Golden Triangle doing well. Some small, highly focused and high-quality universities such as Durham and York escape with cuts of only 2 per cent. But there are costs. A large department may have a low percentage of 4* work but still have many more 4* researchers than a small department with a higher quality score. In this scenario, the big department can lose all its money. The consequences are again dramatic:

  • 820 departments lose all funding
  • Close to 20,000 researchers affected
  • 32 institutions lose all funding
  • Nottingham and Newcastle lose 15 per cent
  • Liverpool and Cranfield lose almost 30 per cent.

It seems clear that in many of the possible scenarios, some universities will lose out purely because of the strategy they adopted in 2008 for including or excluding staff from assessment in the RAE – something they were promised at the time would not affect funding.


Cuts of 15 per cent in research budgets have been in focus since an authoritative leak in the Financial Times at the start of last week. But it is one thing to look at cuts of 15 per cent in the abstract. It’s quite another to face up to what they would really mean in practice. The numbers in these scenarios show that there are no easy options when the cuts reach this scale, and should make sobre reading for vice-chancellors around the country.

The Golden Triangle are widely seen as big enough and brilliant enough to hold their own in any system. But successive leaders at HEFCE have been anxious to maintain capability in the middle ranks of the Russell Group, at places like Nottingham and Liverpool. That objective took a big knock with the 2008 RAE results. With new universities eating into the QR cake, the likes of Liverpool and Newcastle were squeezed. This modelling shows that there is no obvious way to avoid squeezing them further with cuts of this magnitude.

It is the Vince Cable inspired scenario that’s worst for the Russell Group. But if ministers try and protect the Russell Group with one of the other scenarios, then the effect is devastation everywhere else.

It would be a striking way for the Conservatives to book-end 13 years of Labour power. Since Margeret Thatcher dissolved the binary line between universities and polytechnics in 1992, we have gradually increased the research capability of what were the polytechnics. Now, in one swoop, much of that could be obliterated.

If so, we could be reverting to a 1950s sort of system where to get on in research you had to be talent-spotted by someone at an elite university. Maybe that’s not a bad idea. But with the change being so sudden, a lot of talented people recognised by the 2008 RAE may find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, with no obvious way out.

Cuts of this magnitude will be handled by different universities in different ways. In the less research-intensive places, departments stripped of QR funding may well turn their back on research. Wealthier, more prestigious universities may well calculate that they can shore up losses in their research income with increased student fees. For them the worry is that uncertainty may eat up their surpluses before the new system of fees is bedded down in a stable market.

It’s clear that almost any conceivable scenario involves large transfers of money to the South and East of England from the rest of the country – the reverse of high-profile coalition promises.

In any case, bad as they may be, all three scenarios are, in my book, better than the Russell Group’s preferred Option 4 – limiting QR to the top 30 or so universities. At least these scenarios all leave some dynamism, some competition in the system.

Modelling notes

The modelling has been done by looking at the allocation of Mainstream QR and assuming that any changes here are reflected in the allocation of other parts of QR.

The Vince Cable scenario can be calculated by using the weightings [9 2.64 0 0 0] instead of [9 3 1 0 0] to calculate the allocations to departments.

In other two scenarios it is a case of ranking departments appropriately and then drawing a line at the bottom of the list to be funded.

More detailed tables (and explanation) are available to customers of our Research Benchmarks service. These show definitve lists of winning and losing universities and departments. We also have tables for other levels of cuts, eg 10 per cent or 20 per cent. Email Benchmarks@ResearchResearch.com for details.