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Alicen Nickson, Deputy Director, Research Support & Development, Brunel University discussed the joint work Brunel and Research Media are doing to encourage interdisciplinary research. Research Media provide communications and reporting support, including the Brunel Annual Report.
Dame Julia Goodfellow (University of Kent) started by noting that the rate of change in HE policy has led to institutions becoming reactive rather than proactive. Citing RB Haldene as a lasting influence in research funding (100 years ago), Britain does incredibly well in terms of outstanding quality accross a broad range. We are already ranked second in the world in Innovation by the OECD, much of this comes from our university base.
So there is a political consensus on the value of research and innovation - every HE minster has said similar things about the strength of UK research and the economic (and cultural)benefit it brings. There is a recognition of the importance of interdisciplinary research.
This consensus is visible in government planning - for example the 2014 Plan For Growth set 8 grand challenges and signalled significant investment in research.
George Osborne said in May 2015 that universities are the "jewels in the crown of the british economy". But clearly a lot has happened since - the election of a radical conservative government suffused in marked values. Jo Johnson wrote the Conservative Manifesto 2015 and is personally committed to many of the HE priorities there in. He immediately began to cut (£150m from HEFCE), and focus on teaching policy.
BIS, as a non-proctected department had a significant cut - but this could have been much bigger (with significant impact on research) without the change from student maintenence grants to loans. The creation of OfS seperated research from teaching at a policy level.
Science was protected in real terms for research in the Autumn Statement - an amazing achievement - with £1.5bn transfered from BIS for the the Global Challenge areas. This was welcomed by Sir Paul Nurse, who also laid the ground work for UKRI.
The Stern review continues that pattern of a review after each REF, in previous iterations this has not led to greater changes. Stern was specifically charged to examine burden within the REF. Quoting James Wilsdon's comments on Wonkhe, Julia felt that the overarching concern was with the expense of the REF - and noted that it would be interesting
Looking at devolved administrations, she noted that there was a significant divergence in policies around teaching students. Scotland has no fees and student number controls, and saw a recent commission on Widening Access. Wales has faced swinging cuts and it is expected that the Diamond Review will propose a loan scheme. NI has also faced significant cuts.
Turning to the Queen's speech, the HE bill was announced alongside bills on localisation, extremism and radicalisation, and bills that may have an effect on the UK as an attractive destingation (NHS visitors overseas charging.
The WP created two NDPBs: the OfS and UKRI. These are "Haldene" bodies at an arms length from government. The new OfS looks to streamline reporting for institutions, and the three stage implementation means an immediate boost to fees in line with inflation. There is a welcome focus on widening participation, with implications for PG research.
The first reading of the Bill was on the 19th May though the legislative timescale is unclear. The bill includes the legislative apparatus to set up the two new organisations.
In her personal view, she felt that the focus on high quality research will not go away. The British system is very effective compared to others in Europe. She also saw a continued focus on impact and industry collaboration, noting that the impact agenda has helped institutions in recruitment and media relations.
She felt we will see an increased use of metrics - already seen in the "environment" section of the REF, and noted that field-weighted citations will be very useful to assessment panel.
John Kingman, the new interim chair of UKRI, is a "great appointment" as a long-term advocate for science. We still don't have a real feel for what changes will mean for Research Councils, and it was noted that OfS should have an input into research funding decisions - this appears to have been accepted.
Universities have a role to play in transforming the regions - this is patchy across the country with some rural and costal regions not having research and innovation at the heart of Local Enterprise Partnerships. In Kent the LEP has primarily been focused on Transport.
Turning to wider challenges, she noted events ranging from the US Presidential Elections, the rise of China and the future of Europe have an impact on research collaboration and international recruitement.
The pledge to reduce net migration is a huge issue, and has led to a 50% drop of students from India over the past 5 years. The Government refuse to remove student numbers from migration statistics, even though it is claimed there are no controls on international student numbers (which points to differences in opinion between the Treasury and the Home Office). The Government is committed to a £30bn target from education exports.
Freedom of speech and academic freedom are challenged by initiatives like the Prevent agenda. Students are less likely to be as committed to freedom of speech as universities, and this may be a challenge going forward.
15% of academics are from the non-UK EU, as are 125,000 students. Schemes like Erasmus and Horizon2020 provide significant benefits to UK HE. But this is not just about money, it is about an attitude to partnerships. Brexit could have significant impacts on the sector, with different implications for different institutions. There would be a drop in research incomes, and it is unclear how changes would affect non UK EU students and staff. Kent, for example, have done a lot to emphasise their commitment to a diverse institution, but no-one really understands precisely what would happen.
The Science minister will speak to the UUK board on the morning after the referendum which should be very interesting.
Every minister for science and universities for the past 25 years has signed a letter to the Times, as have 103 current vice chancellors (within 3 hours of an email requests). There has also been a joint letter from UUK and the German Rectors' Conference. But writing letters have only been a small part of University campaigns, there have also been huge efforts on campuses around voter registration and getting out the vote.
In questions, Julia felt that divisions between traditional universities and private universities (who may not be research active) would be one of the biggest changes within the sector.
On the removal of the Royal Charter from Universities, UUK are looking very carefully at the HE Bill and the new powers that the SoS may have. She noted that going to the Privy Councils on strategic changes can be complex.
The Humboltian model of HE (noting that the Germans feel that the UK model is far more utilitarian than a true humboltian model) is at risk as universities plan for potential course, and indeed institutional, closure. Universities are generally driven by scholarship, but private market entrants are also benefitting students. There is an onus on us to demonstrate the benefits of a research let model.
She saw PGR as an essential component of the UK research base, but suspected that we would see a reduction in numbers even with an increase in funding. She noted that PGRs are "loss leaders" and that we were nowhere near understanding the full economic cost of research students. Though PG loans are very new, we are only beginning to see the impact of UG loans - would those with a £40k debt including interest want to take on further debt as post graduates.
In Research Fortnight yesterday Nick Hillman felt that universities could have made a better case to government for further funding. Julia felt not, she chaired a group putting a UUK input into the Spending Review based on the impact of the work that universities do. It is often the case that the Treasury is very supportive of research.
Julia did not want the Chief Executive role at either the OfS or UKRI ("Maybe chair..."). She felt an ideal candidate for UKRI would have an understanding and experience of both university research and industry.
She reminded us that EU research income is equivalent to another research council. There are very few non EU opportunities for multi-country research teams to get a single funding stream for a joint project.
On the "best" and "worst" policy changes in the last year, she noted that "nothing has happened yet: wait and see!"