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Pressures on staff are the greatest concern for university research leaders – by Tom Sastry of Research England

  • 17 November 2021
  • By Tom Sastry

Universities’ attitudes towards recruitment indicate confidence in the future of research but their senior leaders have concerns about the impact of increased workloads on staff, writes Tom Sastry, Head of Sustainability at Research England.

Summary: A recent survey undertaken by UKRI indicates that universities are not holding back on plans to recruit new staff or PhD students in the wake of the pandemic but do have concerns about the impact of increased workloads on staff. There are also concerns about whether staff who have lost research time during the pandemic will be able to return to previous levels of research activity. University research leaders also see a risk of a shift in their research portfolios away from the arts and humanities and towards STEM.

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For funding organisations such as UKRI, it is tempting to think that researchers who apply for funding, and research funders who grant it, shape the future of university research. 

The truth is more complicated. Universities spend a lot more on research than they receive in grants and fees from external funders. In order to support the current scale of research activities, Universities dig deep into surpluses on non-research activity, notably from commercial activity and from teaching overseas students. In 2019/20, their contribution was £4.5 billion, meeting 30% of their total cost of research. 

Critically, universities want their researchers to explore their own ideas, and they want to carry out unfunded or partially funded research which address the great questions of the age. They want to engage with the needs and ambitions of their stakeholders but do not want to limit themselves to undertaking research which is dictated by external funders. They also want to pursue the international reputation which only successful impactful research brings. It is for these reasons they are willing to contribute to the costs of research where, as with most external funders, a grant or contract pays rather less than the full cost.

Inevitably this model requires a substantial investment from the university: the money required to support research equates to 15% of all non-research income. Therefore, universities have to be able to generate large surpluses on other activities and devote (as they currently do) the majority of those surpluses to research.  

If universities were unable or unwilling to provide this level of support, UK research would look very different. Increases in costs on other activity or increases in the cost of research would inevitably lead to decisions about cutting research activity which may not be well aligned with the aims of external funders. Universities’ successes in generating income with surpluses and their subsequent decisions in deploying those surpluses, are critical. 

A year into the pandemic, we wanted to capture how it feels to be advocating for research in a university. Existing data capture the impact of decisions taken some time ago based on what was known at the time. We wanted an insight into the possible impact of decisions which are now being contemplated, with the new information universities have and in anticipation of future developments.

We did not want to institute a burdensome data collection exercise. So we devised a short survey of sentiment. The idea was to ask a series of questions, asking for impressions rather than data, which would take no more than 15 to 20 minutes for a university’s senior research lead (typically a pro-vice-chancellor) to complete.

The survey was sent to the senior research contact at all higher education institutions funded for research by Research England, the Scottish Funding Council, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland. We received 78 responses from 77 institutions.

Shifting priorities

There were strong indications of greater strategic direction of research activity within universities and colleges. More than half our respondents agreed that their institutions had become more selective in allocating research time and facilities to researchers; a majority also reported that departments, schools and faculties were being asked to do more to justify their resources for research. 

Similarly, there were indications of significant shifts in subject mix: 61% of those whose research portfolios include medicine, health and life sciences expected those subjects’ share of the institution’s research activity to increase by 2023 with only 2% expecting a decline. Expectations of growth in other STEM subjects were almost as strong. By contrast, 41% of respondents expected arts and humanities’ share of their institutions’ research activity to decline, with only 7% expecting it to increase. 

The shift towards STEM was particularly striking in the context of what our respondents expected to happen to funding from charities. Nearly three-quarters (73%) expected the value of new awards from charities to be lower over the next three years than previously. This would disproportionately affect medical research. 

Either universities are anticipating a compensating shift towards medical research from public funders, or they are prepared to increase their investment in medical and health research in the face of reduced opportunities, perhaps in anticipation of better times to come or in a judgement about the societal importance of medical research.

Recruitment

We tested whether the appetite for recruiting staff and research students had been affected by events since the beginning of 2020. 

TRAC (Transparent Approach to Costing) data suggest universities have to make a more substantial contribution of funds from their own resources to the cost of supporting postgraduate research students (PGRs) than to other research costs. On average, less than half the costs are recovered. 

In spite of this, 96% reported either an increased or unchanged appetite to include studentships on grant applications and 75% were at least as keen as before to recruit self-funding students where the limited student fee almost certainly leaves much of the cost with the university. Attitudes towards offering fee waivers to students without funding were more evenly split.

Sentiment towards staff recruitment seems to be almost as robust. Only 12% agreed that events since the outbreak of the pandemic had made them less willing to recruit staff to first lecturing posts (66% disagreed). Figures for experienced staff were similar (15% versus 65%). We also asked whether institutions were recruiting staff on terms which envisaged them doing less research than those recruited in the past. Only 8% agreed.

Recruitment is a strong indicator of strategic confidence. These figures suggest that the financial impact of the pandemic has not yet forced universities to plan for a future in which they do less research even if it has forced many of their staff to prioritise other activities. 

Impact on staff

The strong sentiment in favour of continued recruitment contrasts with a high level of concern about the conditions facing existing staff. Almost all respondents (97%) agreed that non-research workloads of academic staff have increased; 95% agreed that staff are finding it harder to make time for research. Our respondents clearly believe this is having an impact on research productivity: 93% felt that research activity in their institutions was more constrained by other pressures on staff time than in January 2020. 

Strikingly, under half (47%) were confident that they would be able to support staff to return to former levels of research activity by the end of academic year 2021/22 (most of the remainder were unsure). This suggests a significant risk of long-term scarring of academic careers as a result of the pandemic. Our survey did not investigate which staff were likely to be affected but institutions will need to be aware of the risk this poses to under-represented groups.

These findings indicate the need for a broader understanding of the conditions which make university research possible. Traditionally, funders and regulators have focused on financial sustainability, asking questions about research deficits and how they are financed. But a mismatch between activity and resources can play out in other ways – for example through pressures on staff and infrastructure.

Tom’s earlier writings for HEPI can be accessed here.

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