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Politicians have opted to drive a big wedge between teaching and research (in England) – so why is research funding still linked to the tuition fee cap?

  • 1 September 2022
  • By Nick Hillman

TD;LR What is the best answer to this question: why can’t institutions move from the highly regulated Approved (fee cap) category at the Office for Students to the also tightly regulated Approved category and still receive ‘Quality Related’ research funding?

For many years, I’ve been screaming into the void (or so it feels) about one oddity of the English higher education system.

It used to be widely understood that teaching and research were inextricably linked and that to be a university, you needed to do both. Perhaps there is much to be said for this view, which still dominates in many countries, but in English policy terms that ship sailed long ago, with the acceptance of teaching-only universities.

There have been numerous big changes in the same direction ever since, which have further hammered home the wedge between teaching and research – most notably, replacing the old Minister for Universities and Science with two different Ministers in two separate Departments, one in charge of research (currently vacant!) and one in charge of higher education.

Yet despite this inexorable shift in one direction, during the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA, 2017), one marker in the opposite direction was also laid down. No institution in England, it was declared, could receive Quality Related (QR) research funding on the back of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) unless it also agreed to be in the most tightly regulated category at the Office for Students and, as part of this, agreed to limit its fees to full-time home undergraduates to £9,250.

So in short, if you want money from REF2021, you need to be charging no more than £9,250. This reality is shown in the table below from the OfS website.

There was no serious debate about whether this made sense at the time the legislation was wending its way through Parliament (despite my best efforts). I remember asking one senior civil servant working on the legislation why it was so. Their reply was that the Bill was effectively maintaining the status quo (as you could only get QR funding if you were HEFCE-funded) and therefore the issue was not worth any great interest by those who set or scrutinise our legislation.

So for good or ill, we have opted to drive a huge wedge between teaching and research throughout our higher education system except in this one area. Conveniently, it means the Government can save money by not funding research conducted by those institutions outside the Approved (fee cap) category at the OfS. Yet QR is meant to be ‘quality related’ and what if some of the best research were ever to be found in these other institutions? Taxpayers may not be well served by such rules.

I’m no conspiracy theorist. My experience of Whitehall leads me to believe that almost everything that goes awry or is overlooked in UK public policy is down to a cock up rather than some hidden agenda to conspire against people. But in this instance it so happens that the current rule helpfully blocks research-intensive institutions from leaving the ‘fee cap’ category while remaining entitled to large sums of QR funding. If the link between research funding and tuition fee caps were ever to be broken, these institutions could charge any fee they liked (perhaps means-tested, as in the US) and still receive public funding from Research England.

The current link between the tuition fee cap and research funding seems to reflect a pretty significant decision about the policy framework in which higher education operates, yet it is also one that has had minimal – if any – proper debate. Shouldn’t we be discussing whether we have it right?

  • On the one hand, the current position is not entirely unreasonable: if we want to have a meaningful sense of there being a single English (or even UK?) higher education system, then our oldest and most famous institutions need to be part of it. The current rules also avoid the high ‘sticker prices’ common in the US.
  • But on the other hand, have you ever heard any policymaker admit that the link between tuition fees and research funding is primarily there to stop older, richer and more research-intensive universities from breaking free of the fee cap? Me neither. Yet there is no other convincing explanation and conversations about breaking away do go on inside the ancient universities.

Limiting Oxbridge and a handful of other institutions from moving to higher fees will seem a price worth paying to many people for all sorts of reasons. But if no one is providing a clear rationale for the current arrangements that link the fee cap to eligibility for research funding, then they will be less well insulated from attack when the current period of high inflation increases the losses on educating home students. Changes often happen primarily because no one has provided a strong enough rationale to defend the status quo against those who want something different – just look at Brexit.

After all, the problem revealed by recent media coverage – on how international students sometimes displace home students at the more prestigious institutions – can be solved in more than one way: for example, by much bigger teaching grants from Government (which seems less than likely in the current fiscal environment) or by the sort of higher home fees that already exist among institutions that used to be called ‘alternative providers’.

If you’re interested in reading more about this conundrum, then see our new report out today on the past, present and future of research assessment.

In my chapter, I say:

If Quality Related research funding is designed to fund the best quality research, why limit it to institutions that have taken one particular approach to setting their fees for undergraduate courses? As research budgets grow, this area should be looked at afresh, perhaps as part of the formal post-legislative scrutiny of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) or as part of the forthcoming Higher Education Bill. Otherwise, there is a risk the current rules will come to seem like monopolistic behaviour stemming from an unholy alliance between existing universities wanting to hold back competition and the Government wanting to limit demands on public funds.

In David Sweeney’s chapter, he says:

As far as underpinning funding from Research England is concerned the education / research link remains fundamentally intact. Some may think it is desirable to change that position but it is a matter for legislation, and therefore a national discussion, not a matter for the machinery of government.

As the new administration takes charge next week, there is an opportunity to look at such areas afresh to ensure they are defensible. There is even an option to shift policy back in a different direction, perhaps by bringing teaching and research closer together once more by having a single Minister.

HEPI is hosting a conference on research in central London on Thursday, 3 November 2022, in conjunction with Elsevier, a HEPI Partner. For further details, including an agenda and details on how to book a place, see https://bookwhen.com/hepi. Organisations that already support HEPI are entitled to free places.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    Government funding of skills development, undergraduate and post graduate teaching, and Government funding for research and development is becoming increasingly complex.

    I can see no sensible reason to restrict research funding to Universities that also agree to cap the cost charged for delivering undergraduate degrees to £9250 a year.

    Government research funding should follow excellent research wherever it takes place.

    It is true that most Universities undertake teaching and research. It is also true that some Universities excel at both, some only in one of the areas and others in neither.

    Some skills development providers do no research at all.

    The growth of Degree Apprenticeships has also created a new type of institution that teaches skills and awards degrees to undergraduates without gaining access to Government funding of £9,250 a year or charging the student.

    We also have “private” Universities awarding degrees that charge the student for the teaching provided and private (overseas) students who pay higher fees than domestic students eligible for the £9,250.

    However, we do not seem to have a University undergraduate degree awarding model that can combine claiming the state sponsored £9,250 a year with a private additional top up payment from the student.

    Such a model may be a way to fund additional undergraduate places without too much additional government expenditure.

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