UKRI and OfS: happy marriage or uneasy alliance?

The roles of the previous higher education regulator, Hefce, have been split between two new bodies: UKRI and OfS. The two organisations were meant to collaborate – but how’s it working out in practice? Professor GR Evans investigates


Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) 2017 abolished the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) and divided its responsibilities between two new organisations: UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and Office for Students (OfS). The OfS would be responsible for allocating what remained of the former block grant for teaching and Research England (part of UKRI) would take over the infrastructure funding in the block grant intended for research

Before the bill was passed, concern was expressed in the House of Lords about how the two would work together. So, how well-founded were those concerns?

On 17 June, UKRI published a consultation document on the proposed ‘revised terms and conditions of funding administered through Research England’ under section 97 of the Act.   Responses are due by 8 July.  This is an important moment, because section 97 will apply from 1 August this year. Until now, UKRI has been in a ‘transitional period’ during which it has continued to provide ‘funding to higher education providers in line with provisions under Section 65 of the 1992 Act’, the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 (original numbering).

This gives us an opportunity to see how the relationship between OfS and UKRI is working out in practice.  OfS has been much more frequent than UKRI with its circulars to those who have chosen to be on their respective mailing lists, and a pattern has emerged of OfS reactiveness to the headlines on student-related matters highlighted in the press.  OfS  says it has been ‘turning up the volume’ in its second year business plan.  Meanwhile UKRI has been publishing its own news with little or no overlaps with the concerns engaging the OfS.


A narrower remit for UKRI

UKRI has a narrower remit than OfS because its infrastructure funding is available only to research-active providers. That excludes universities having only taught degree-awarding powers. Providers must meet certain requirements in order to be eligible for research funding. They must:

  1. Be registered by OfS in the ‘approved fee cap’ category
  2. Undertake research and related activities
  3. Have a principal aim, in their research activity, of creating new knowledge made freely available to all

In its ‘access and participation’ guidance so far, OfS does not seem to have addressed the question of  ensuring fair access to research-active universities.


An obligation to consult

UKRI is conscious that its funding arrangements ‘may be subject to further revision due to the dynamic funding environment in which we operate and the policy cycles of other organisations such as the OfS and UKRI’. It is therefore consulting on its ‘obligation to consult’, whether ‘full public consultation or a lighter-touch consultation for minor or technical changes, and for changes which follow logically from principles already consulted upon’.

Importantly it notes the Wellcome Trust requirement affecting its own ‘funded organisations’, that they should ‘publicly commit to the principles of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), Leiden Manifesto or equivalent’:

‘Though this is not yet a condition of our funding, we intend to incorporate the outcomes of the UKRI open access review into future iterations of these terms and conditions, including any mandatory requirement to sign DORA or equivalent.’


Funding for research supervision

One of the points which most concerned the Lords in their debates before the passing of HERA 2017 was how teaching for research students was to be provided in future, once OfS took over the ‘teaching’ funding functions of HEFCE.  The UKRI consultation proposes only an adjustment of wording about ‘allocation of funds for research supervision’ in the light of the new UK Quality Code for Higher Education.


Intellectual property

UKRI takes an interest in intellectual property, which does not seem to be mentioned anywhere on the OfS website. This seems a significant OfS omission because the Competition and Markets Authority guidance sees it as an important feature of the fairness of terms in the student contract.

UKRI sees the matter from a quite different angle, referring as it does to ‘the minutes of the Committee of Public Accounts on the Thirty First to the Thirty Seventh reports from Session 2017-19’. The PAC recommended that: ‘the Government is still not doing enough to safeguard the economic benefits of its research assets’. UKRI therefore intends to include this statement:

‘Higher education providers are obliged to consider how Intellectual Property arising from publicly funded research may be optimally exploited, taking account particularly of guidance from the Intellectual Property Office, including its “Intellectual Asset Management for Universities”.’


Research integrity

UKRI’s new consultation puts emphasis on ‘research integrity’. It wants ‘compliance with the Concordat to Support Research Integrity to remain a condition of funding’ but it recognises the difficulty of demonstrating such compliance. Here is the familiar problem that it is one thing to create procedures and quite another to ensure that they are followed.  UKRI suggests that a requirement to notify it of  ‘the outcome of all formal misconduct investigations’ may solve the problem, but in practice such outcomes can take months, even years to emerge. There is no cross-reference to the duties of providers with research students, who may easily be caught up in ethical dilemmas if they suspect research misconduct and fear to report their concerns.


Safeguarding, equality and diversity

Some common ground between OfS and UKRI appears in UKRI’s addition of its ‘expectations of higher education providers in terms of safeguarding for staff, students, volunteers, participants in research and direct and indirect research beneficiaries’, though OfS has mainly concerned itself with safeguarding as it affects students.


Time to get together?

This UKRI consultation, then, seems to reveal limited common ground of developing interest between the two regulatory bodies now respectively responsible for teaching and research in English higher education providers.  Is there a case for their getting together to think about the implications of allowing this gulf to widen?