Thursday, 13 September 2012

Wither Hefce (Hefce withers?)?

The International Review of Mathematics (see earlier blogs) praised the breadth and depth of UK research, commenting on how research excellence is distributed across the country. This excellence is possible because of the current dual funding system: researchers can apply for support for research assistants on specific projects through the Research Councils (RCUK). There is not enough money to support all mathematics research through this mechanism, so the majority of research is supported through Hefce's research contribution to the universities, which makes it possible for people to go to conferences and keep in touch with the international community.

Hefce, in case you didn't know, is the Higher Educational Funding Council for England (other UK countries have their own versions). As the name suggests they are a funding body, and have been awarding money to universities for teaching (the Hefce T) based on agreed numbers of students, and to support basic research activity (the Hefce R contribution) based on the RAE and now REF assessment exercises. Here's a quote from their webpage:

The Higher Education Funding Council for England promotes and funds high quality, cost-effective teaching and research, meeting the diverse needs of students, the economy and society.

However, the change in the student fee system means that effectively all the Hefce T support will be withdrawn over the next few years. This is, of course, the majority of the Hefce funds, and Hefce is by definition a funding body. So will Hefce continue to act as a funding body, disbursing the Hefce R? If it does we will be in the curious state of having two research funding mechanisms, and this is bound to create tensions as to the different roles, and attract attention as a target for efficiency.

My crystal ball suggests that Hefce's days are numbered. Universities will be expected to use student fees to support the basic (non-RCUK funded) research of their staff.

But will they? Can they? And if they do, will it be with strings (preference to those who already have RCUK grants or matching funds from other sources). If the system evolves in this direction we may well see the UK maths research output drastically cut.

Two codas.
1. It could be argued that the RCUK supports the best UK research and this is all we need. Wrong on two counts! Fields medallist and blogger extraordinaire Tim Gowers has never held an RCUK grant. Also, the EPSRC and other research councils are becoming every more involved in choosing research directions, so different sub-disciplines are not treated equally. It is the dual funding mechanism that ensures that as fashions change we have the expertise to adapt and lead.
2. Research informs our teaching in many ways. Losing that research base will impact on the quality of teaching in universities. 

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