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Pam Tatlow: Threats to core funding could overshadow REF reform

The remit of UK Research and Innovation falls short of ministerial expectations, says the chief executive of the MillionPlus group.

The vote to leave the European Union has dramatically changed the higher education and research landscape. For university staff and students, the higher education and research bill may not be a top priority. But the Cabinet Office has given the bill the green light, and it is being progressed in parliament post haste.

Before the referendum and any parliamentary debate, Jo Johnson, universities and science minister, appointed the Treasury official John Kingman to begin establishing UK Research and Innovation, one of the bill’s key proposals. Since the referendum, Johnson has argued that UKRI will be more important than ever after Brexit.

The bill has the potential to change how research is assessed, funded and managed across the UK. The case for UKRI emerged from Paul Nurse’s review of the research councils, which implied that it was not enough for the seven research councils to work collaboratively as Research Councils UK. The Higher Education Council for England’s roles in running the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and administering quality-related funding were added to the mix under the banner of Research England. The innovation funder Innovate UK was thrown in too.

UKRI’s stated aim is to increase efficiency through a more coherent management structure. In reality, it may simply downgrade its constituent organisations. The councils’ royal charters will be undermined and they will become UKRI committees; their chief executives will probably have a lower profile and less access to ministers.

Innovate UK and Research England would also become UKRI committees. The former may become the commercialisation arm of the research committees. The latter will take on HEFCE’s research and knowledge-exchange funding.

The bill refers only to Research England as “exercising such functions as UKRI may determine”. The bill puts the dual-support system of block grant and project funding on a statutory basis, but it is easy to foresee Research England playing second fiddle to the research councils, particularly as there may be less funding available post-Brexit.

Even if funding is maintained, there is a risk that the block grant for research will fall victim to the Treasury’s bias toward science and technology. The same goes for the smaller research councils, despite the importance of research related to the creative industries, arts, humanities and social sciences.

Bringing HEFCE’s quality-related funding under the UKRI umbrella may also jeopardise the postgraduate funding provided via this route. Most postgraduate students with HEFCE funding do not enter academia; the risk is that these people, who often wish to study for professional or personal reasons, will lose out if the only support is from UKRI.

Finally, there is the prospect that oversight of research and teaching will be divided between, respectively, UKRI and the Office for Students, which will take on some of HEFCE’s roles and effectively operate as a regulator.

All this is happening before the publication of Nicholas Stern’s review of the REF. If the word on the street is correct, this may reflect the view of institutions such as the University of Cambridge, which wants all staff to be submitted to the REF, using sampling to limit panel’s workloads.

Such an approach is unlikely to assuage early-career researchers’ fears that the REF’s methods work against them. It would also probably lead to contracts being re-focused on either teaching or research, creating a divide that would harm researchers, students and institutions.

Many universities see the REF as an important process but believe that it would be enhanced if assessment were moved from individuals to departments. Universities could then submit research without the need to link it to an individual academic. This could enable a broader range of work to be assessed, and support increased submission of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research.

Even without the prospect of UKRI, there is a strong case to remove the assessment of research environment entirely from the REF or, at the very least, significantly downgrade it while increasing the weighting for impact. The results of REF 2014 showed the value of assessing impact. The government remains committed to ensuring public investment in research returns value to society and the economy; the assessment of impact supports this.

In some respects, the government’s ambitions for a new locus for research funding and innovation are on the money. Funding allocations and awards have become something of a closed shop, disappointing researchers and universities alike. But there are other ways of achieving these ambitions, and the remit of UKRI as set out in the bill falls well short of ministers’ lofty objectives. It remains to be seen whether ministers can convince parliament, universities and researchers that they have hit upon the right solution for research in the face of Brexit.

Pam Tatlow is chief executive of MillionPlus, the association for modern universities.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight