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Notes from #ARMA2016 Plenary Session 1: Phil Sooben and Ehsan Masood

6 min read

Phil Sooben was speaking on behalf of RCUK, which is representative of closer co-operation between research councils. He covered aspects of the HE White Paper and the spending review settlement, but did not be go into research council re-organisation, or the EU referendum, and did not be cover the Stern Review as this is covered in a session later in the conference.

The HE White Paper going through parliament in a process managed by BIS - inappropriate for Phil to speculate on aspects of the delivery of policies within this paper.

UKRI will be formed of 7 RCs, InnovateUK and Research England. John Kingman of the Treasury is the interim chair, who will be appointing the first chief executive. John highlighted the cross-disciplinary aspects of UKRI, following the Nurse recommendations. Spending review offered the scope to establish a common research fund, this may grow over time. However, budgets will be allocated to each of the nine constituent bodies via the current grant level process. He welcomed the restatement of the Haldene principle and dual support.

A second reading of the HE Bill will take place next month, with the committee stage for the 6-8 weeks following. Practical steps to establish the UKRI will take place after the second reading. The research councils will moved towards centrally led corporate functions with a single common approach for activities as a defaul, not just cost reduction but a better way of working.

Turning to the Global Challenges Research Fund, Phil acknowledged that this £1.5bn over the next 5 years was a major part of the increased research settlement in last year's spending review, with council allocations static or slightly reduced. He highlighted the close links to the DfID "Aid Strategy" and the UN Global Goals for sustainable development.

The RC's investment strategy for the GCRF is to retain the core allocations within this fund static at £100m from 17/18 to 20/21. The remainer of the funds will be fed in increasing amounts into a centrally managed pot, which can respond with agility to opportunities and challenges as they arise. Over time, stretch and transformational research funding will grow, whereas core allocations remain static in cash terms.

There will be five broad areas of priority: Health, Clean Energy, Sustainable Agriculture, Conflict and Humanitarian Action, Foundations for Economic Development. These are initial areas, and expansion is likely (eg Resilient Systems...). These priorities will be managed by a strategic advisory group, currently open for nomination closing on 23rd June.

The success of this initiative will be measured by real world impact - so a focus on real world problems, and stakeholder collaboration, will underpin projects. Funded work must fit with the definition of Official Development Assistance, and impact must be realised within developing countries via collaboration and partnerships.

Ehsan Masood (editor of Research Fortnight) noted the whole other dimension of the Bill and White Paper, on Teaching and the Student Experience. He cautioned that the discussed policies may yet not happen, and encouraged delegates to read the Bill.

The Bill has a tight timetable, with BIS aspiring to get it through quickly. It is important to understand what we are gaining or losing within these policy changes - a "great experiment". Governments have an internal logic which can be insulated from wider concerns, but Whitehall is accountable to parliament and thus the people. All of us have a voice that could be exercised before the Bill becomes law.

The big change in T&L is that HEFCE will go - this is not a surprise as HEFCE is no longer a funding body. The OfS will be a regulatory body (a phrase not often heard in HE policies) aimed at promoting a market in HE. This will make it easier for private universities to become established - an aspiration for a world class private sector to match a world class public sector. We have a number of high profile education companies up for the challenge of servicing one of the last untapped markets - so market entry will be speedier, and sector-funding means that there is a similar feel to when oil was first discovered in the north sea. And all of this from a Government that claims not to do industrial policy!

Smaller and specialist institutions should make their voices heard as this is clearly a matter of concern to them. Ehsan drew a parallel with the establishment of Academies and Free Schools centralising financial power in Whitehall. Choice and autonomy will exist, but more for new institutions and less for existing ones. He argued that older, royal charter, universities are giving away the rights to title and degree awarding powers to the OfS and Government.

He cautioned that if we allowed TEF to progress raising fees will become an automatic process rather than under the scrutiny of parliament. Eshan personally felt that this was a risk, and could lead to unacceptable levels of graduate debt, and again encouraged us to speak up.

Masood welcomed the Global Challenges Fund - a "very smart move" that will encourage younger researchers more nationally inclined to think and work in an interdisciplinary manner. The QR fund via Research England has a good protective wall around it, and the Haldene Principle will be enshrined in law (though he noted that the phrase is not used in the draft Bill).

However, he felt that the TEF would merely produce more tension within institutions, and that losing HEFCE as a single body would also hurt the sector. And "innovation" should be wider than solely commercial innovation - bring the word into the body that looks after research brings commercial innovation into a research culture. Academia's biggest contribution is in training, education and development and this isn't recognised.

In closing he noted that the existing Research Councils are established by Royal Charter and have a direct line to parliament, and that the proposed structure may not be able to retain that level of parlimentary access. Ministers may chose to reorganise or rename councils at any point, and UKRI has no Royal Charter and reports into BIS. This is a part of a wider trend to concentrate power in Whitehall - as a part of a journal that will fundamentally change the nature of UK HE. It is remarkable that no minister has stood up to properly explain the rationale behind the policy - if you care speak up, as otherwise the policies as presented will be speedily implemented.