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Disappointment over ‘bailout shortfall’

Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Government coronavirus support for university research is only 5% of what sector says is needed

A much-anticipated government ‘bailout’ of the university sector has come with only about 5 per cent of the money institutions said was needed to support research.

Vice-chancellors group Universities UK had asked for a 100 per cent increase in the roughly £2 billion ‘quality-related’ funding expected for 2020-21.

Instead, the government has pulled forward £100 million of quality-related research funding and advanced £2.6bn of tuition fee payments to institutions. The move has won few plaudits from universities that were seeking much more financial support amid the fallout caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The [government’s] package of support…is a start, but it cannot be all that is offered to UK universities to cover the damage caused,” said Diana Beech, head of government affairs at the University of Warwick and a former adviser to three universities and science ministers.

“Unless more substantial follow-up measures are provided…the UK’s leading universities will have no choice but to plan for the future based on next to no contribution from government.”

The government support package for English universities announced on 4 May includes advanced payments on tuition fees worth £2.6bn, with strings attached that include temporary student number controls.

The Department for Education said £100m of quality-related research funding is being brought forward “to ensure research activities can continue during the crisis”.

“This £100m we are bringing forward will provide immediate help to ensure the excellent research taking place in our universities continues throughout this period of uncertainty,” said science minister Amanda Solloway (pictured above before the lockdown)—the day before she tweeted an invite for people to show their “lockdown trims” by entering her “lockdown haircut competition”.

But sector leaders expressed dismay at what they saw as a small amount of money that is not additional but merely brought forward. Some contrasted the package to previous government pledges to double government R&D spending over this parliament, as well as the request from Universities UK for vastly more financial support.

Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK, said the sector will now need to work with government on further measures “to protect the strength, capacity and quality of the research base and ensure the sector is positioned to support economic and social recovery through research and innovation”.

The advanced money leaves questions over how universities will support research that is heavily cross-subsidised by the tuition fee income from international students, which amounted to £7bn last year.

Peter Mathieson, vice-chancellor of University of Edinburgh, said the government package “does not fill the hole, particularly in Scotland, where the cross-subsidy of research and education is even more important than in England”.

“I was very disappointed,” said Emma Hardy, the shadow universities minister. “This does nothing to address the underlying loss of income in the long term; and consequently universities are being forced to set budgets in the dark without a safety net.” 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight and a version also appeared in Research Europe