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What might the separation of ministerial profiles mean for research?

19 Feb 2020

Assistant Director Daniel Rathbone looks at what the separation of the ministerial profiles for science and universities might mean for research.

With the confirmation of Michelle Donelan MP as Minister of State for Universities at the Department of Education and it is clear that the ministerial briefs for Science and Universities are now held separately for the first time since 2010, and it different departments for the first time since 2007. (Note: From 2008-10 David Lammy MP was Minister for Higher Education and Lord Drayson was Science Minister. Until 2007 Science was in the Department for Trade and Industry, while Higher Education was the responsibility of the Department for Education and Skills). You can read CaSE’s full response to the re-shuffle here, as well as reflecting on Chris Skidmore’s time as Universities and Science Minister.

Universities play a crucial role in the UKs research environment and will be critical to achieving the Government’s goal of investing 2.4% of GDP in R&D by 2027. However, the way R&D in universities is funded is complex. At CaSE we have long warned that any policy changes on university funding must be closely scrutinised in order that they have no unintended consequences that lead to a reduction in the funding available for R&D. This will be doubly important now that the ministerial link between science and universities has been removed. Former University and Science Ministers, including Lord Willets and Jo Johnson, are among those who have warned about the risks of separating science and universities.

Later this year we are expecting the Government to respond to the Augar review on Higher and Further Education. If the Government moves forward with the recommendations to cut tuition fees this could have an impact on R&D if any loss in income is not replaced with grant funding for teaching. Cross-subsidy of research from teaching budgets is common, and shortfalls in funds for teaching provision would very likely affect the amount of money available for research. There is a risk that Quality-Related (QR) funding, often used for discovery research, could be redirected to teaching.

Furthermore, UKRI Research Council grants typically do not meet the full economic cost of research. Universities must ‘top-up’ grants from existing budgets so that the full economic cost of that research is met. Our members have told us that pressure on university budgets could make it more difficult to find the money necessary to top up research council grants to fund the full economic costs of research.

Here at CaSE we will be working hard, along with other stakeholders, to make this message heard over the coming months. As we engage with both the Department for Education and BEIS we will be making sure that officials and ministers are fully aware of the context in which universities operate, and their important role in the UK’s research ecosystem.