In August 2019, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee published a report on science research funding in universities. The committee criticised proposals made in a recent government-commissioned review to lower the cap on tuition fees. It argued this would affect the ability of universities to cross-subsidise science research. It also recommended the Government should ensure Brexit did not have a negative effect on research funding and that any new post-Brexit immigration laws do not prevent scientists and researchers from being able to work in the UK. The House of Lords is scheduled to debate the report on 9 September 2020.

How is science research currently funded?

There are two main sources of funding for higher education institutions, which vary by nation. In England, the two sources of public funding are:

  • direct, from funding councils (research and teaching) and research councils; and
  • indirect, from student loans.

Most funding for research in higher education institutions comes from direct funding routes. The committee noted that, in 2017/18, 62% of research in UK higher education institutions was publicly funded. Other significant sources of funding included UK charities (15%), UK businesses (4%) and EU sources (11%).

The Science and Technology Committee noted that public funding has largely not kept pace with inflation since 2010. The committee said this has led universities to cross-subsidise research from other funding streams, such as funding for teaching.

Tuition fees cap: Impact on scientific research

In February 2018, the then Government announced that Philip Augar, the author and former non-executive director of the Department for Education, would chair a review of post-18 education and funding. The Augar Review report was published in May 2019 and recommended that the cap on higher education tuition fees should be lowered to £7,500 per year. Since 2017, the cap has been £9,250 per year.

The Science and Technology Committee criticised the then Government for not including science research in the terms of reference for the Augar Review. The committee warned that lowering the tuition fee cap would have an indirect impact on the funding available for science research in universities by limiting universities’ ability to cross-subsidise this activity. It argued that unless alternative support was made available, universities would need to redirect funding away from research to support teaching.

The committee also criticised the Augar Review’s proposal that the Office for Students (OFS) should determine the value of the teaching grant awarded to individual institutions for different subjects. It argued that this might also have a negative impact on the science research funding available by affecting any cross-subsidy arrangements in place. The committee argued that, given the complexities of university funding, “seemingly small disruptions to inputs could have significant unintended consequences for research”. It also said expanding the role of the OFS in this way would “erode” the autonomy of higher education institutions.

Government response: Future research funding

The Government published its response to the Science and Technology Committee’s report in October 2019. At that point, the Government had not yet responded to the Augar Review’s findings, though said it would bear in mind the potential impacts on overall university funding as it considered the review’s recommendations.

The Government stated its intention to give its response to the Augar Review at the time of the planned spending review, scheduled to take place in Autumn 2020. In September 2019, press coverage suggested the Government had “shelved” the review’s proposal to cap tuition fees, though the Government has not confirmed this.

In its response to the committee, the Government also highlighted its commitment to increase investment in research and development (R&D) to 2.4% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2027. The commitment was first made in the 2017 government white paper ‘Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain Fit for the Future‘ and was subsequently repeated in the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election. In April 2020, the Office for National Statistics said total R&D expenditure in the UK was 1.71% of GDP in 2018.

Responding to the committee’s concerns regarding the future role of the OFS, the Government said it was able to issue strategic guidance to which OFS “must have due regard”. It also argued the autonomy of universities was protected in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. The Government announced in January 2020 that the OFS would conduct a “value for money” review of the funding provided to different subjects at universities in England.

International collaboration in science research post Brexit

The Science and Technology Committee also considered the potential impact of Brexit on the ability of UK universities to collaborate in international research projects. It recommended the Government should commit to associating the UK with the EU’s joint research funding programme, Horizon Europe. This is set to replace the existing Horizon 2020 programme in 2021. In February 2019, the House of Lords European Union Committee made a similar recommendation that the UK should seek full association in future Erasmus and Horizon programmes.

In its response to the Science and Technology Committee report, the Government said it wanted the UK to associate with Horizon Europe “should the conditions be right, and the final programme represent value for money”. It also said that, even if the UK were not an associate to Horizon Europe, it would continue to support UK collaboration in international research projects. The Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto included a commitment to continue the UK’s collaboration with the EU on scientific research, including Horizon. More recently, in June 2020, the Government confirmed that the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe formed part of the negotiations being conducted between the UK and the EU.

The Science and Technology Committee also recommended the Government should ensure any new post-Brexit immigration laws did not prevent UK universities from being able to recruit and retain researchers. In its response to the committee, the Government argued its new ‘fast-track’ immigration scheme, announced in August 2019, would ensure “elite scientists and researchers” would be able to work in the UK.

Science research funding and Covid-19

Since the publication of the Science and Technology Committee’s 2019 report, universities have been affected by the outbreak of Covid-19. Figures within the sector, such as Catherine Fletcher, professor of history at Manchester Metropolitan University, have written about how they expect the pandemic to impact on science research funding in universities in the long-term. In June 2020, the Government announced a support package for university research. It said this would include a combination of grants and loans which would be equivalent to 80% of the loss in income arising from the decline in international students. The Government also said it would provide £280 million of additional funding for publicly supported projects due to end in 2020/21.

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Image by Trust Tru Katsande on Unsplash.

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