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Universities outline where axe will fall if QR funding is cut

Universities have warned that any reduction in quality-related funding for universities would harm basic research, disproportionately affect the humanities and social sciences and possibly lead to redundancies.

Twenty-three out of 25 universities used as case studies in the Review of QR Funding in English HEIs published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Universities UK on 9 December, told the report’s authors that a reduction of quality-related funding would be “extremely challenging”. It would most likely lead to less research and a reduction in the quality and volume of research outputs, they said. The universities also warned of "redundancies, suppression of posts and difficulty in recruiting and retaining high-quality research leaders". 

Universities expressed concern that blue-sky research would suffer as institutions failed to keep in touch with the latest developments, and put more emphasis on applied research. “We’d have to become much more money-minded,” one university was quoted saying in the report, adding that “quality-related funding really helps us pursue excellence in research”.

The impact across disciplines following a reduction of quality-related funding is likely to be uneven, with “disproportionately adverse effects” on disciplines such as the arts, humanities and social sciences, the report says. These subject areas would become more reliant on teaching income, which could lead to a shift of focus from research to teaching. “If they are reliant on their teaching income, then they are teaching departments, they are not research departments,” one director of research and enterprise said.

One head of department at a research-intensive university, warned: “Although we’ve seen a great increase in research income generation in the Arts and Humanities, it’s still not big. If you think what the average is for the Russell Group, £18,000 per FTE, QR is supporting a huge amount of the research output in the arts and humanities and social sciences in this university. And if there was a sharp reduction, it would be devastating.”

The report also found that a reduction in quality-related funding, which is the bulk of the funding distributed by HEFCE and is allocated in response to research assessment exercises, could make it more difficult for universities to secure funding from research councils, as well as funding from other sources such as charities and the European Union.

“Let’s remember that research tends not to pay its own bills,” the director of research and enterprise at one university quoted in the report said. “Research is something that universities have to subsidise, £20 million less is £20m of research we will [not] be doing, which means a third of our research will go straight out of the window.”

The report also suggested that the impact of any reductions would be particularly bad at the more research-intensive universities. It also argued that the "full implications of QR reductions would not be seen in the immediate future, but rather it would be in the longer term when the loss of diversity and the richness of what comes out of research in higher education intsitutions becomes apparent."

The dual support system for research funding, under which the seven research councils fund research projects and HEFCE distributes block grants, including quality-related funding to universities, was widely supported by institutions. According to the report, universities would spend much more time on securing grants if funding was decreased. Also, if the money for quality-related funding was re-directed into research councils, it would “distort research priorities”.