Exquisite Life Exquisite Life Research Europe Research Fortnight

March 28, 2011

Arts and Humanities Research Council to comply with Government directive? [1]

by G.R. Evans

Research funding to be used for research on the ‘Big Society’? [2] 
In its research funding announcement last December the Department for Business Innovation and Skills included an Annex on the Haldane principle, to clear up ‘some uncertainty’.
The BIS Annex asserts that ‘the Haldane Principle does not apply to the research budgets of government departments, which are used to fund research to support their departmental policies and objectives’.  And, with a leap across a chasm in the logic, added that, ‘departments work closely with the Research Councils to ensure that the research they fund is aligned with that funded by the science and research base and delivers maximum value to the taxpayer’. 
For the Arts and Humanities Research Council this appears to lie well within the Secretary of State’s powers as set out in the Higher Education Act 2004, Part 1, s.10. That does not mean that it is indeed in accordance with the Haldane Principle, which has never been defined or protected by statute.

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December 09, 2010

Tripling tuition fees is inseparable from funding cuts

by G.R. Evans

The Draft Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2010, December 2020 (Cmnd 7986) is a sharp reminder that the tripling of tuition fees is inseparable from the savage cuts in public funding of higher education.

The new “higher amount” is of course to be £9000. Hiking it up at his discretion is a “condition of grant” power of the Secretary of State under the Higher Education Act 2004. HEFCE must then make it a condition of its grant of public funding to particular institutions that fees are not charged above the stated new maximum. Fees and funding go hand in hand.

The higher amount has to be justified, and you can read how in the BIS Interim Impact Assessment, Urgent Reforms to Higher Education Funding and Student Finance (November 2010) – see http://bit.ly/famftG.

No doubt, with the word “urgent” ringing in their ears, civil servants put this together within weeks of the publication of the Browne Review, but not before political compromises with the Russell Group had turned Browne-A (un-amended Browne) into Browne-B (alternative package), which fixes the higher amount at its present level and is the preferred option.

The BIS interim assessment is wedged in its apparently non-negotiable position on top of sheer guesswork in justifying both the cuts and the fee-rises, as the following excerpts illustrate.

“It is impossible to predict how demand and supply will react under the new system.”

“It is not known what level of contribution the HEIs will charge graduates so average contributions of £6,700 and 7,200 respectively were assumed.”

“It is assumed there will be no change in the distribution of subjects studied due to the reforms.” And this inspite of the proposed total withdrawal of public funding for all but a few subjects favoured by the government.

It is admitted by BIS that there are “risks to the financial viability of HEIs after the reforms” -- in other words a giant gamble with the very survival of institutions. BIS adds that it may be that “some institutions who are unable to attract students ... cannot survive”.  But here too it is hard to say how many or when.

The admitted impossibility of tracking consequences or weighing risks would, one would think, undermine the claim to have made even an “interim” assessment of the impact of tripling student fees and removing almost all public funding. But the authors cheerfully stack presumptions round the “higher amount” to shore up its credibility.

The first is that “the current HE system does not incentivise institutions enough to improve their performance”. It is anticipated, they add, that the removal of public funding and the tripling of fees will put “more power and influence into the hands of students”. It is inferred that this will “therefore drive quality and efficiency improvements” by giving students the “incentive to pressure their HEI to drive improvements so as to maximise their net benefits”. 

There is nothing to explain the mechanisms by which this “pressure” is to be exercised, and how students who will not know that their “net benefits” (such as employability) have suffered until possibly years after they have left the institution will be able to exercise their power and influence during the course in order to “drive” significant improvements.

What became of the recognition that in order to be sustainable institutions have to be able to plan ahead? 

How will universities continue to pay staff salaries or dare to publish prospectuses promising that courses will run when they cannot know in advance whether they will have the necessary students to finance either?

The block grant, which enables institutions to sustain their activities, is abruptly characterised on no stated evidence as a weakening “the incentives on institutions to improve their performance”.

So quickly did the authors of the BIS impact assessment work that they seem to have forgotten that in July the Coalition was taking decisions about research funding on the very principles they are now claiming to be unsound. [1]

In a response to a commons committee report the government said: “The Coalition government supports the Haldane principle” and “the dual support funding system”.  It added: “Together these have created the environment in which the research base in the UK has flourished.” 

The government believes that continuation of reliable infrastructure funding in the allocation of which the government refrains from interfering, “incentivises” institutions to improve their research performance?  But at the same time it is saying that only massive rises in tuition fees and unpredictable student demand can “incentivise” good teaching. 

Surely the majority academics who do both are going to be very confused?

[1] Government Response to the House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee Report: “The Impact of Spending Cuts on Science and Scientific Research” of July 2010 (Cmnd 7927) and The Government response to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee report 'Setting priorities for publicly funded research' of July 2010 (Cmnd 7928)

October 21, 2010

Save the intellectuals

by G.R. Evans

Who will be the next H.A.L. Fisher, Richard Crossman, or David Willetts?

In its spending review statement published yesterday the government has prioritised research spending on science, at the expense of teaching funding, which is apparently to be axed altogether for the arts and humanities. This is a high-risk strategy, endorsed by the Browne Review but threatening the very stuff of the nation’s intellectual life.

The members of the Browne review panel included only one academic practitioner in the arts and humanities: this was David Eastwood the historian and vice chancellor of Birmingham University and former chief executive of HEFCE. 

Eastwood must have found himself hopelessly outnumbered in trying to bring the complex realities of academe before a panel external to that world; just as David Weatherall was on the Dearing report group more than ten years ago. Both will have felt like Boethius: trying to salvage the culture of antiquity for future generations while the barbarians destroyed the glory that was Rome.

The Browne panel proposes that public funding for the teaching of most arts and humanities subjects should end. What is going to happen to  students -- including research students -- and to lecturers in these subjects? Moreover, what will happen to lecturers teaching these subjects?

Traditionally, employment contracts for university academic staff require them to do both teaching and research. Academic salaries mostly come out of the infrastructure funding allocated by HEFCE in a block grant. This is notionally divided into teaching and research streams. 

But in the case of individual academic contracts, the proportions are not fixed. Universities have been unwise in claiming that it costs, say, £8,000 a year to teach an undergraduate. The truth is that no one knows.

But let us suppose that the government and the new Higher Education Council decide that the proportion should be 50:50. And suppose some research in the arts and humanities survives the ‘research’ cuts. If a humanities lecturer is also supervising a research student, is this to come from the teaching or research budget?

There is a more fundamental point: if current research students are supported until they complete their doctorates, what will become of those who would in previous generations have aspired to become academics themselves?  It seems there will be no more H.A.L. Fishers or Richard Crossmans -- both Fellows of New College, Oxford; one a Liberal politician, the other a former Labour cabinet minister.

Moreover, if this or a future government changed its “priority” subjects, it is simply not possible to turn one tap off and turn another one on. By the time lecturers in politically-unfashionable subjects have been evicted, the wind may have changed and a different government may be desperate to recruit teachers at the cutting edge of knowledge in these fields. The short-lists may be very short indeed.

The government also needs to understand that evicting academics from politically-unfashionable subjects will itself not be easy, or cheap. In the pre-1992 universities there is quite a complex procedure to be gone through under the Model Statute before academic staff can be made redundant.

At the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge the whole academic community would have to be involved in debating and voting whether to strip out a proportion of, say philosophers or literary critics. It is hard to believe there would be a resounding, “yes”, for any faculty might be next. Individuals may be persuaded into voluntary redundancy but at a price. Will universities be allowed to spend public money on financial settlements under compromise agreements? Besides, that may leave “Swiss cheese” departments without the range of expertise to offer a balanced course in the subject.

Both the CSR and the Browne panel think in terms of an instrumentalism using a Heath Robinson construction of levers and pulleys tied together with string. Has it been forgotten that Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, like many of the British scientists of earlier centuries wrote on the humanities as well as science and were probably better scientists for it.

G. R. Evans is professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge

G.R. Evans

Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History, University of Cambridge, former Project Leader Improving Dispute Resolution (HEFCE-funded Leadership, Governance and Management Fund Project), Director of Operations, Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service (www.idras.ac.uk).