Scottish Higher Education Funding Council Review of Research Policy and Funding: Second stage Consultation (2001)

Written by James Groves

Overview

Without a doubt the issue that concerned us most was the Council's proposal to transfer PGR funding from the teaching funding stream to the main QR grant. We have very serious reservations that this will lead to an overconcentration of Scottish postgraduate research provision in fewer departments, reduce diversity of provision and unnecessarily penalise departments without a 4 or 5/5* research rating, many of which provide high quality postgraduate research training environments. We welcome the proposals for a Research Development Foundation Grant, aimed at such departments, but feel this does not adequately compensate 3a and 3b rated departments in established research disciplines.

We enthusiastically support your proposals to establish minimum conditions for postgraduate training and supervision, your proposals on collaborative networks and your suggestion that the AHRB should be established formally as a research council.

Question 5: should the Council enhance the level of recurrent funding for 5* rated departments (units of assessment) following the 2001 RAE?

We do not believe that 5* rated departments should receive more money if the effect of this is to deny support to research in 3a and 3b rated departments, as this would reduce the diversity of research conducted in Scotland. Given the current funding climate, we feel an enhanced level of recurrent funding for 5* rated departments would inevitably lead to a reduced level of recurrent funding for 3a and 3b rated departments; consequently we do not support the Council's proposal.

Question 8: what are your views on the Council's proposals for a Strategic Research Development Grant?

We broadly agree with the Council's proposals. We must stress, though, the critical importance of diversity within the membership of the SRDG assessment panel, both to ensure a degree of objectivity and to ensure that all stakeholders in Scottish research are represented.

We believe there is a case for inviting a representative of postgraduate research students onto the SRDG assessment panel, to ensure strategic resource allocations through the SRDG take into account the distinct needs of postgraduate research. We would appreciate the Council's views on this matter.

Question 9: what are your views on the Council's proposal for a formula-led Research Development Foundation Grant?

We welcome any prospect of support for emerging disciplines in 3a and 3b rated departments. The vibrancy of Scottish research depends in part on the support given to innovative and non-traditional subjects.

However, we do not believe the Research Development Foundation Grant initiative is an adequate substitute for a decent level of formula QR funding for 3a and 3b rated departments. We dissent from your decision that:

"In preparing their submission to RAE 2001, institutions should be aware that the Council's priority from 2002-03 will be to maintain the average level of funding for each active researcher in departments rated 4 and 5/5*."

As you state, this may well lead to a lower unit of funding, and even possibly no funding, for departments that are rated 3a and 3b. All 3a and 3b rated departments are, by definition, centres of national excellence - we believe they deserve adequate QR funding. Overconcentration of QR funding in the highest rated departments could lead to stagnation, with 3a and 3b rated departments unable to improve their ratings, and 5/5* rated departments having no effective yardstick to be judged against. The Research Development Foundation Grant will ameliorate this problem within certain emerging areas, but it will not assist the more-established disciplines.

Question 10: in what areas might the Council use its research development funding to achieve greater synergies with the programmes of research funded by the Scottish Executive?

We will make one suggestion - that an element of research development funding be allocated to the study of access to higher education within Scotland. This subject is of key strategic importance to the Scottish Executive, as witnessed by its establishment of the commission into student funding, convened by Andrew Cubie, and its positive response to their report.

As an organisation concerned with postgraduate education, we are particularly interested in the study of access to postgraduate education, and note the relative lack of research in this area - in particular, we feel there is a need for detailed investigation into the levels of participation in postgraduate study, and barriers to entry, for people from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, women, people from the ethnic minorities and people with childcare responsibilities.

Question 12: do you agree that the council should maintain a funding stream to provide institutions in Scotland with access to UK funding activities, where it is recognised that participation in such activities is important to maintaining the national and international competitiveness of the Scottish research base?

Yes. In particular we welcome the Council's decision to participate in the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB), which we believe deserves UK-wide support.

We also strongly endorse your suggestion that the AHRB should be established formally as a research council. For too long, the arts and humanities have been viewed as the poor relations (literally) of other subject disciplines. While it is always likely that more resources are going to be allocated by the government to the sciences and engineering, the establishment of an Arts and Humanities Research Council would enable the arts and humanities to compete for funding on an even footing with other disciplines. We believe this is long overdue.

Question 13: would there be benefits in using the Strategic Research Development Grant to fund networks of collaborative research activity, where such networks are based around key facilities that are concentrated at certain nodal points?

Yes. We are strong supporters of collaborative research, and believe the Council's proposals for funding networks based on nodal points represents both an effective use of money and a useful means of ensuring diversity and innovation in Scottish research.

Question 14: what are your views on the Council's proposals for the funding and training of postgraduate research students?

We have very serious reservations about the proposal to transfer PGR funding from the teaching funding stream to the main QR grant. This would necessarily lead to a concentration of postgraduate research provision in departments with a 4 and (especially) 5/5* rating. Given your proposals to reduce, or even possibly remove, QR funding from 3a and 3b rated departments in order to preserve 4 and 5/5* rated departments, this concentration will be even more marked.

In our opinion there is no necessary correlation between a department's RAE rating and the quality of that department's postgraduate research. There are many 3a, 3b and even 2 rated departments that provide an excellent postgraduate research environment; conversely we can think of some 5/5* rated departments where the quality of postgraduate research provision is woeful, especially in terms of support, guidance and training.

Indeed, due to the availability of collaborative and industrial funding it is often the case that, within certain vocationally-oriented subject disciplines, there is a higher proportion of research students in 3a and 3b rated departments than in 4 and 5/5* rated ones.

It is proposed that, in order to address the problems of overconcentration, the number of research students in a department will be included as a minor indicator of volume in the proposed Research Development Foundation Grant. We welcome this commitment; however, emerging research is by its very nature speculative, with an element of risk attached. For established academic disciplines, the RDFG will not be of use and it remains likely that resources will be overconcentrated - this could lead to stagnation, as we mentioned in our response to question 9. Such an environment is not an attractive one for the prospective research student.

We believe the Council should think again about this proposal.

We strongly agree there should be national criteria for the standards of research students' training and supervision. These are, in our view, of critical importance. Research students demand certain minimum standards in return for their fees; the frequency of complaints, especially concerning supervision, is increasing. It is in everyone's interest that prospective research students know what they can expect from higher education institutions in Scotland - we recommend that national criteria, based on the QAA Code of Practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education, be laid down without delay.

Question 15: what are your views on the overall funding model that the Council proposes to introduce from 2002-03?

We have serious reservations that the proposed model will overconcentrate resources and lead to a reduction in the diversity of Scottish research. A formula-led Research Development Foundation Grant would be a welcome innovation; unless this is allocated very substantial resources, however, we fear it will not compensate for the decision to preserve 4 and 5/5* rated departments at the expense of 3a and 3b rated ones. Unless significant changes are made to the model, we are concerned that a two-tier system of institutions will emerge, with only a minority of departments having the resources to engage in significant levels of research. We do not believe this is in Scotland’s interest.