UK government proposes scrapping major universities funder

An organization that distributes a large slice of the national science budget to English universities each year will face the axe, if a UK government proposal gains political support.

In a consultation document which may presage a wider shake-up to the way science is funded in the UK, the government suggests scrapping the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which doles out around £1.6 billion ($2.4 billion) for research annually to universities.

The document, published by the department for Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS) on 6 November, makes it clear that other organizations would take up HEFCE’s responsibilities, although exactly how remains an open question.

Even if the idea never comes to pass, it suggests the government is not shy of suggesting radical changes to the British science funding landscape.

That is likely to heighten the concerns of UK scientists who are already braced for a government-wide spending review, scheduled for 25 November, which it is feared may lead to cuts to the science budget.

And the proposal comes as researchers await the results of a separate review into the future of the seven UK agencies who distribute the rest of the nation’s science budget: the research councils.

The UK science budget is distributed in two ways. HEFCE hands out a grant to universities each year for both research and teaching (allocated on the basis of an audit of university research quality), while the research councils invite researchers to compete for grants.

The consultation document emphasizes that if HEFCE were scrapped, this would not mean an end to this ‘dual support’ system. But it suggests that a single body might in future encompass the functions of both HEFCE and the research councils, with assurances that the two types of funding remain separate.

It is unclear how that would affect the status of the research councils, which are currently independent entities but might not be if they fell under a new umbrella body. Asked whether such a move might constitute a merger of the research councils, a spokeswoman for BIS told Nature that the design of the future research system remains “all up for consultation”. Impact of UK research revealed in 7,000 case studies.

Moving HEFCE’s research functions into the research councils “sounds like a stupid idea to me,” says Kieron Flanagan, a science-policy researcher at Manchester Business School. “If you’ve accepted the principle that we maintain the dual support system, it doesn’t make sense to put both aspects of that in the same hands”.

Ultimately, the BIS document says, any decision would be guided by responses to the consultation – which can be received until January 2016 – and by the results of the review into the research councils, which is being led by Nobel-prizewinning geneticist Paul Nurse, the president of London’s Royal Society. Given HEFCE’s legal status, scrapping it would also require the approval of Parliament.

In the light of Nurse’s review, and a perceived drive by BIS secretary Sajid Javid to reduce the numbers of the department’s partner agencies, researchers had already been speculating before today’s consultation document whether the research councils might be merged.

But Flanagan also thinks that merging the research councils to create a giant agency would be a mistake. The agencies already share some back-office functions, and any further merging would bring marginal gains but sizeable risks, he adds. “I don’t think there’s any example of a large, successful research system that has a single, science funding body.

These are not the only ideas explored in the BIS proposal. Another option is to create a new body to replace the research-related functions of HEFCE (whose teaching-related and regulatory responsibilities would be taken up by a different organisation, the Office for Students). Flanagan and others wonder whether BIS might itself hand out research money, although this is not an option flagged in the consultation document.

The proposal is clear that scrapping HEFCE would not mean scrapping the UK’s university research audit, known as the Research Excellence Framework. However, in the future the government will look to reduce the burden of the audit, potentially by making greater use of metrics, it says. A future audit might also try to limit costs by discouraging the “industries” which it says some institutions create around the exercise, such as carrying out multiple mock assessments and bringing in external consultants.

More widely, the BIS consultation is designed to refocus the UK university system on teaching. The Office for Students would, for example, take responsibility of a new Teaching Excellence Framework, which will judge university’s teaching performance against measures such as student satisfaction and graduate job prospects. In the future, universities’ ability to increase the tuition fees they charge in line with inflation will be tied to “high quality teaching”, the document adds.

Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2015.18743  Nature   Original web page at Nature