Sunday, 27 August 2017

Research Funding and the Premiership

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a university in possession of a good research income must be in want of more. At the Association of Research Managers and Administrators conference in Birmingham earlier this year, Randolph Haggerty of the University of Leeds and Ann Charlett-Day of the University of Sheffield explored this perplexing maxim. Can we really all grow bigger? And, if so, how?

Like Oliver Twist, all universities want more, and many are met with disbelief. Haggerty came clean and said that his own institution aimed to increase its research income by 50 per cent. Others are even more ambitious: Kent aims to double its income and the University of Huddersfield aims to triple it. This, Haggerty suggested drily, was “challenging”.

Nevertheless, the present climate gives universities little choice. The Research Excellence Framework uses research income as a metric to measure a healthy research environment. The results of that feed through into league tables, which, in turn, inform the recruitment of students and staff.

Trophy money

Given this, universities are keen to display their income, like a Soviet May Day parade, to intimidate and set themselves apart from their rivals. But a large intercontinental ballistic missile of research income doesn’t necessarily make for good science—or, indeed, a rich university. After all, Einstein did some of his most groundbreaking work when he was still a patent clerk, and Stanley Miller and Harold Urey recreated the chemical origin of life using basic equipment while their universities were making cuts. Moreover, research income usually generates additional costs rather than increased profit.

If all the universities in the UK wanted to increase their research income by an average of 30 per cent, that would mean that an additional £1.8 billion would need to be found. Is that even possible?
Haggerty suggested that, in theory, it was. He cited the rebirth and exponential growth of revenue from football following the introduction of the Premiership, and likening the increased income from fees to the Premiership’s windfall from TV rights. Growth is possible, even if there doesn’t seem to be much opportunity for it.

Three game plans

However, higher education is not football, and the ability to grow may be more limited. Assuming that the overall level of research funding will not increase anytime soon, the avenues for growth are essentially threefold: to poach, to undercut or to pursue non-traditional funders.

The first, poaching, requires big pockets. Universities need to invest heavily to pull in the funding superstars. This is common practice in the run up to the REF census date, but that’s quite a narrow window, and universities generally have some reassurance of the beneficial return on their investment.

Investing heavily at other times would be strategically brave but perhaps less certain. There is no guarantee, as the adverts say, that past performance is an indicator of future results. And the funding for such an investment would have to come from elsewhere: from tuition fees, say, or diverting it from infrastructure projects, neither of which would be popular with students.

The second option—undercutting in order to offer more value to the funder—already goes on. Haggerty asked members of the audience at the ARMA conference what the minimum full economic costs they would be willing to charge for a project. The average was 50 per cent: a considerable shortfall from the 80 per cent that the research councils pay, which is already a shortfall on what is deemed sustainable.

The final option—non-traditional funders—is often seen as an obvious avenue, but in reality is of limited use. The traditional funders are the most popular for a reason: they tend to be the most generous and least restrictive. Smaller funders, industrial funding and overseas sources tend to come with more onerous contracts and can be more time-consuming to deal with.

Ball watching

Haggerty concluded by saying that there was a need to question the breathless pursuit of growth for growth’s sake. We should recognise that not all research funding is sustainable, and clarify what is acceptable with our own institutions. We need to focus on covering core costs, such as staff and overheads, and minimise directly incurred costs. We should not race to the bottom by undercutting the competition, but rather negotiate better deals, particularly with industry.

And finally, we should look at maximising other income sources, such as philanthropic giving, alumni, crowdsourcing and commercialisation, and not non-traditional research funders.

However, the question still remains: is there really the potential for all to grow? Realistically I think not. I think we need to accept that ambitious targets are not serving anyone well. As I’ve said before about targets, they tend to encourage perverse behaviours.

Instead, I think we need to ensure that the horse is leading the cart and that we seek the funding we need to do excellent research, rather than the income we want to show off.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight in August 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

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