UK political parties on fees: A deafening silence

A core concern of CDBU is the funding of higher education in the UK. We are not a party political organisation, but we take an intense interest in policies relevant to our aims. With an impending election, we think it is important that the public be well-informed about the intentions of different political parties. Accordingly, in October 2014, Gordon Campbell, Chair of CDBU, wrote to UK political parties as follows:

I write as chair of the Council for the Defence of British Universities. We hope that higher education will be one of the issues in the forthcoming general election, and to that end we are inviting each of the political parties to send us a statement of their policy with respect to the funding of higher education. We will post these short statements (up to 200 words long) on our website. We would particularly welcome comment on tuition fees, but would also be pleased to publish views on the role of the REF in the funding of research. I would be pleased to receive a statement of your policy by 1 December 2014.

This letter was sent to Conservative, Labour, LibDem, Green, UKIP, SNP, Sinn Féin, Plaid Cymru, SDLP DUP, Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Labour Party*.

We are disappointed to report that to date we have had replies only from the Greens, Plaid Cymru and UKIP.

These are posted here.

We appreciate that the issue of fees is a complicated one, but it is of concern that none of the major parties appears to have worked out a policy that they are prepared to state publicly on this issue.

We will add further replies if and when we receive them.

*There were variants in some letters where appropriate. E.g. ‘I appreciate that Sinn Féin is an all-Ireland party, and that that may complicate your response, but it might help for me to say that we are principally interested in the policies with respect to the UK government in Northern Ireland.’

Reflections on the REF and the need for change

Discussion piece by the CDBU Steering Group

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Results from the research excellence framework (REF) were publicly announced on 18th December, followed by a spate of triumphalist messages from University PR departments. Deeper analysis followed, both in the pages of the Times Higher Education, and in the media and on blogs.

CDBU has from the outset expressed concern about the REF, much of it consistent with the criticism that has been expressed elsewhere. In particular, we note:

Inefficiency: As Derek Sayer has noted, the REF has absorbed a great deal of time and money that might have been spent better elsewhere. The precise cost has yet to be reported, but it is likely to be greater than the £60m official figure, and that is not taking into account the cost in terms of the time of academic staff. Universities have taken on new staff to do the laborious work of compiling data and writing impact statements, but this has diverted funds from front-line academia and increased administrative bloat.

Questionable validity: Derek Sayer has cogently argued the case that the peer review element of REF is open to bias from subjective, idiosyncratic and inexpert opinions. It is also unaccountable in the sense that ratings made of individual outputs are destroyed. One can see why this is done: otherwise HEFCE could be inundated with requests for information and appeals. But if the raw data is not available, then this does not inspire confidence in the process, especially when there are widespread accusations of games-playing and grade inflation.

Concentration of funding in a few institutions: We are told that the goal is to award quality-related funding, but as currently implemented, this leads inevitably to a process whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, with the bulk of funds concentrated in a few institutions. We suspect that the intention of including ‘impact’ in the REF was to reduce the disparity between the Golden Triangle (Oxford, Cambridge and London) and other institutions which might be doing excellent applied work, but if anything the opposite has happened. We do not yet know what the funding formula will be, but if it is, as widely predicted, heavily biased in favour of 4* research, we could move to a situation where only the large institutions will survive to be research-active. There has been no discussion of whether such an outcome is desirable.

Shifting the balance of funding across disciplines: A recent article in the Times Higher Education noted another issue: the tendency for those in the Sciences to obtain higher scores on the REF than those in the Humanities. Quotes from HEFCE officials in the article offered no reassurance to those who were concerned this could mean a cut in funding for humanities. Such a move, if accompanied by changes to student funding to advantage those in STEM subjects, could dramatically reduce the strength of Humanities in the UK.

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