Vice-chancellor warns of “cliff edge” as last structural fund projects finish
Welsh universities have warned that 1,000 staff members could lose their jobs when EU structural funding ends later this year—with significant implications for economic activity in the region.
The UK government set up a scheme to replace the funding, but vice-chancellors have told Research Professional News it is no match for the lost income.
According to Universities Wales, a total of £370 million was invested in university-related projects in Wales between 2014 and 2020 via the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund, which aim to foster growth and employment in regions where development is lagging.
The last tranche of this so-called structural funding is due to come to an end this year, with the UK government promising to cover lost investment through its £2.6 billion UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF).
But universities say that delays in the rollout of the fund, coupled with lower levels of investment and uncertainties regarding the distribution of the money, mean numerous projects—that might otherwise have continued or been expanded through follow-on funding—are facing abrupt closure.
The situation is hitting Wales particularly hard, as well as affecting jobs and projects in other areas of the UK, including parts of the north-east.
‘Significant loss of skilled research staff’
Some 60 projects in Wales are due to end this year, putting around 1,000 jobs at risk, according to analysis that vice-chancellors’ group Universities Wales shared with Research Professional News.
Universities Wales could not provide an individual breakdown of institutions, but Cardiff University said 12 of its projects were due to end this year, with a further five projects whose funding ended last year already in the process of closing. In total, these projects have supported approximately 700 jobs at the institution with around 100 roles believed to be at risk.
“The aim of these projects was to create jobs and stimulate economic activity through innovation,” the institution’s vice-chancellor, Colin Riordan, told Research Professional News. “So it’s going to be a big loss not just in terms of the university but also the region.”
Although some projects have managed to continue, they will be taken forward on a “greatly reduced scale and, even in those cases, there will be a significant loss of skilled research and knowledge-exchange staff whose expertise has been developed over a number of years”, he added.
‘We’re on the cliff edge now’
Meanwhile, at Swansea University, vice-chancellor Paul Boyle is also bracing for job losses, as he warned of wider repercussions.
“This is a national problem,” he said. “It’s going to have national implications for jobs, businesses and innovation activity across the whole of the UK, but it’s a particularly damaging issue for us.
“Around 240 jobs at our institution are going to be affected, and the majority of those staff will lose their jobs when these projects come to an end. That’s going to start happening within a period of a few weeks and months. We’re on the cliff edge now.”
Paul Spencer, pro-vice-chancellor for research at Bangor University, said the institution already lost 50 staff last year as projects came to an end.
“We did manage to retain a similar order of staff but we’re potentially going to lose a similar number between now and the end of this year as the remaining projects come to an end,” he said. “That’s quite a challenge because it’s difficult to get those people back.”
Several of these projects supported the local business community. Among affected projects is the Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship (KESS-2), which allows companies in Wales to carry out knowledge transfer with PhD students.
“That’s now going to go,” said Spencer. “It was a really powerful way of linking companies to universities for mutual benefit. And there is no obvious funding stream to replace that at all. Because it doesn’t quite fit within [national funder] UK Research and Innovation’s remit.”
With innovative projects like KESS-2 ending, Spencer fears a negative impact on the university’s ranking in the Research Excellence Framework.
“Programmes like that were quite innovative and helped us in terms of our impact case studies in the REF,” he said. “Bangor came within the top 30 in the UK [for impact]. That was in part due to some of the infrastructure and support that we received from EU structural funds.”
According to the UK government, UKSPF is a “real-terms match” for structural funds and “amounts to a predictable, long-term funding stream” that is “unshackled by previous EU restrictions”.
But for many universities, UKSPF pales in comparison to the EU’s offer both in terms of its scale and the way funds are distributed.
“There is no question that the mechanism that’s been chosen to use the funds is totally different and will not be appropriate for supporting research and innovation projects into the future,” said Boyle.
Unlike structural funds, which were channelled through the devolved governments, the UKSPF goes straight to local authorities, which then decide how the money is spent.
“Local councils have relatively limited experience of this type of funding mechanism—at least in terms of a research context,” said Spencer. “In the case of Bangor, it means talking to six councils all with different priorities. So it makes the process of trying to progress projects that are regional very challenging.”
With “smaller pockets” of funding available through local authorities, Boyle believes it will hamper the “large-scale collaborative projects that we saw being supported with structural funds”.
“We have a good relationship with our local authorities and we’d like to be involved in one or two of the UKSPF funds,” he said. “But they are very small-scale and nothing like the nature of the projects that were funded previously via EU Structural Funds.”
As universities face losing valuable projects and staff, Boyle is planning to write to the UK government to request transitional funding to help projects continue for another year or two.
According to vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, this would amount to £170m, or six per cent of the UKSPF, to fund the continuation of 166 university-led research and innovation projects across the UK.
“At the very least what we would be looking for is bridging funding to keep these projects going for a short period of time to give them a chance to bid for other funds, prove their worth and have a conversation with government as part of that about whether it should continue to fund these projects," says Boyle.
A UK government spokesperson told Research Professional News: “We recognise the vital role universities play in local growth, which is why we are encouraging them to engage with councils to secure UKSPF funding.
“Councils are working closely with partners, including universities, to deliver UKSPF in their areas.”
This topic will be explored in more depth in the next issue of Research Fortnight
A version of this article appeared in Research Europe