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Sweeney: Non-portable REF outputs need transition period

Moves to allow institutions to claim research outputs in the Research Excellence Framework once staff have left will need to be phased in, according to David Sweeney, head of research at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Sweeney, who is the incoming chief executive of Research England, confirmed in a blog post on 20 July that the council “will implement” non-portability of outputs in the REF. However, he said that transitional arrangements would be needed to avoid unfair retrospective decisions.

The rules “must include some exceptions” to address concerns, Sweeney said. For example, early-career researchers have expressed concern that they would not be able to progress in their careers if they couldn’t offer any research outputs to new institutions.

Non-portability of outputs was a suggestion put forward by former British Academy president Nicholas Stern in his review of the REF. It means that researchers would not be able to take their outputs with them when they move institutions; instead, credit would remain with the former institution.

Sweeney acknowledged that a “majority of respondents” to HEFCE's consultation were opposed to non-portability, but said that the arguments in favour of making the change were too persuasive to ignore.  

For example, institutions making significant investments under the existing system lose out if researchers decide to move near the end of a REF cycle. 

Sweeney also said that many vice-chancellors had complained about having to match competing salary offers to retain staff—a move described by Stern as "rent-seeking by individuals".

Outlining several transitional options, Sweeney said the council’s "sounding boards" had welcomed a proposal to ease in the new rules, but that they had “blanched at the complexity” of a proposed hybrid model where institutions could choose to make a limited number of outputs portable.

“Whichever of these special arrangements is used for this cycle, a review will follow,” Sweeney said. “We now need to open this choice of transition arrangements out to the community. It is a question of burden and complexity versus simplicity, low cost and minor loss of precision. Which is it to be?”

Comments or views on the transition proposals can be posted on the HEFCE blog or be sent by email to researchpolicy@hefce.ac.uk. 


Europe > Universities


Structural biology facility gains European recognition

A pan-European structural biology infrastructure network has been granted the legal status of European Research Infrastructure Consortium.

The network, called Instruct, provides access to facilities for bioinformatics, computational biology, mass spectrometry and other resources across Europe. It was granted ERIC status by the European Commission on 4 July, which confers exemptions from VAT and excise duty as well as other legal benefits on the facilities.

Some of the facilities are based in the UK. At an event inaugurating Instruct’s ERIC status on 18 July, the UK’s science minister Jo Johnson said that the European recognition of the network would create new opportunities for Europe’s best researchers to work together.

“I expect many researchers to benefit from Instruct-ERIC support, [and] look forward to seeing Instruct cited in many discoveries that could, quite literally, change the world in the years ahead,” he said.

Instruct is already being used in several projects that have received funding from Horizon 2020, and Johnson took the opportunity to clarify the UK government’s commitment to underwrite British participation in projects that win Horizon 2020 funding after the country leaves the EU in March 2019.

“The government’s underwrite will include those schemes not directly administered by the Commission but that award Horizon 2020 funding. It will also include schemes where the application has two stages as long as the first application is submitted before the UK leaves the EU,” he said.

However, he warned that this must be considered within the wider context of the Brexit negotiations. “Nothing is ever simple and there will of course be details to be worked through,” he said. “We look forward to continuing our productive engagement with the Commission to find a mutually beneficial solution.” 


Arthritis Research UK is inviting applicants to submit outline applications to the Priorities in Clinical Research call, which will draw on the strategies put forward by their Clinical Study Groups. The charity is also pleased to announce the second round of their pain challenge. The deadline for outline applications (both calls) is 31 August 2017.


UK > Politics


Johnson repeats criticism of vice-chancellors’ pay

Universities and science minister Jo Johnson has again put vice-chancellors’ salaries under the spotlight urging more “value for money” at UK universities.

In a speech on university financing on 20 July, Johnson said that high salaries are “diverting millions from universities’ core mission of teaching and research”.

He added: “I am calling on the sector to put an end to the accelerating upward ratchet in vice-chancellor pay.” Groups that “claim sector leadership, such as the Russell group, must lead the way”, he urged.  

University and union representatives, however, remained sceptical. UCU general-secretary Sally Hunt said: “When in a tricky PR spot on university funding, ministers’ default setting has been to criticise vice-chancellors’ pay, and call for restraint."

She added: "This is the second time Jo Johnson has employed this tactic in recent weeks and, while we hope he becomes the first minister to curb excessive pay at the top, this looks like an effort to deflect attention from a wider funding crisis.”  

Vice-chancellors' group Universities UK's response to the speech discussed proposed changes to the TEF, but failed to mention the minister's concerns about executive salaries. 

Johnson also announced details of the next phase of the Teaching Excellence Framework, which will include an analysis of graduate employment and earnings, and subject-level teaching assessment.

He also addressed what he called numerous “misconceptions” in the student loan debate.


UK > Research Councils


UKRI moves beyond words with digital launch

An interim website has been launched by UK Research and Innovation at www.ukri.org.

The website, which went online on 19 July, said it would be “a source of news and information about the development” of the umbrella research body.

UKRI will be formally launched in April 2018 and will bring together the seven research councils, Innovate UK and a new funding body called Research England. It will partly replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The website pools the latest press releases from each council on the homepage, and has a simple grey and white colour scheme. There are four sections on the site—“about us”, “our organisations”, “news” and “contact”.

A press release from the Natural Environment Research Council said that viewers should continue to look at the individual websites of the councils “for the latest news, announcements and funding opportunities from each organisation”.   


UK > Universities


Russell group condemns ‘grammar school’ attack

A paper proposing radical university admissions reform has met a mixed reception, with strong condemnation from the Russell Group of research intensive universities.

On 20 July, the Higher Education Policy Institute published an opinion paper called The Comprehensive University, by Tim Blackman, the vice-chancellor of Middlesex University.

The paper has been interpreted as comparing Russell group institutions to grammar schools, implying that they entrench divisions in society when they should be breaking down barriers.

Blackman suggested that if universities were more like comprehensive schools, they would be better placed to tackle inequality and widen access to education.

In response the Russell group said that Blackman's ideas “would damage standards” and could potentially set students up to fail.

“University is not ‘big school’,” said Sarah Stevens, the group's head of policy in a statement. “Going to university is one of the most significant incentives for young people to work hard in school and attain good grades. If this was no longer a factor in university admission, when then should young people aiming to go to university work hard to attain good GCSE and A-level results?”

The University Alliance, however, welcomed the proposals. Chief executive Maddalaine Ansell said that she would like to see the Office for Students’ new director of fair access and participation create a challenge fund for universities to pilot some of the ideas.  

The proposals in the paper include introducing a quota for the number of students who can be selected based on their academic prowess, and levies for universities that fail to rebalance their “skewed” social-class intakes.

Blackman said in a statement that while the UK higher education system was excellent, it is “failing to make the contribution to tackling social inequality” that it could make if regulated differently. He said that the cause of this problem was academic selection, which he said “has created a sector based on social class advantages rather than recruitment and teaching practices that equalise opportunities”.

Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, described the paper as “one of the most thought-provoking ever published in UK higher education”. He said: “If we want to make a step change in social mobility, it makes sense to stand back and look at the big issues afresh—including our very selective university entrance system.”

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, said the paper was “radical” and would “no doubt ruffle feathers”.

Taylor, a former policy chief to Tony Blair, also praised the “strong argument and powerful research” behind the proposals.

“Forced to choose between ploughing more funds into schemes that do not deliver value for money or a relatively simple regulatory change that is guaranteed to shift the dial, my policy wonk brain plumps for the latter,” he said.


UUK reflects on ‘decade of change’ in university trends report

The latest Patterns and Trends report from Universities UK sparks reflection on a decade of transition in higher education funding across the country.

The report, published on 21 July, examined university statistics from academic years 2006-07 to 2015-16. Julia Goodfellow, president of UUK, said there had been “continued growth in overall demand for university courses” during this period.

The number of full-time undergraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university had increased by 52 per cent since 2006, the report said.

Despite successes, Goodfellow said UK universities “continue to face a number of challenges”, including Brexit. Non-UK university staff have accounted for nearly two-thirds of new academic staff since 2006.

“We have to continue to work hard to attract the staff, students, funding and partnerships that are central to the sector’s, and the country’s, success,” Goodfellow said.


UK > Innovation


HEFCE confirms £40m HEIF budget hike

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has confirmed that the Higher Education Innovation Fund will receive £40 million in additional funding.

A £15m portion of the £40m is being allocated as a “one-off 10 per cent uplift” to the 2017-18 HEIF allocations announced in April. The increase is being billed as part of the government's industrial strategy.

A further £25m will also be added to the HEIF fund. It will be distributed “through the operation of the established main HEIF formula”, said HEFCE, and is “intended to continue in subsequent years”.

In an announcement on 20 July, HEFCE said that institutions receiving the extra 10 per cent would be asked to provide a plan for the funding, which should include “additional information related to the industrial strategy”.

Knowledge exchange organisations Praxis Unico and the Association for University Research and Industry Links welcomed the news. They said in a statement that they had “long called for a permanent increase in HEIF”, which they said was unique in the flexibility it offered institutions to pursue a “wide diversity” of knowledge exchange activities. 


UK > Views of the UK


Global challenges prompt biggest ever cross-council investment

With 37 awards, funding projects in more than 60 countries, the research councils are supporting the work vital for addressing the world's greatest challenges, says Stuart Taberner.

Today, science minister Jo Johnson announced the projects that will be supported by Growing Research Capability, a funding stream of the Global Challenges Research Fund. The 37 projects, with a total funding of £225 million, will see UK researchers working with not-for-profit organisations and industry in more than 60 countries to address vast issues such as health, humanitarian crises, the environment, the economy, and technology.

This represents the largest single interdisciplinary, cross-council investment ever made by the research councils. Of the 37 projects, 36 cut across more than one council’s remit, and 17 cut across three or more. The awards come from the Research Councils UK’s GCRF Collective Fund, which supports interdisciplinary research that is vital for addressing global challenges.

Growing Research Capability looks to exploit the UK’s world-leading research base. It builds on a record of research for development through, for example, the Medical Research Council’s global health programme and joint programmes between the Economic and Social Research Council and the Department for International Development.

The GCRF aims to enhance development research capability in the UK and worldwide by forging partnerships between academics in the UK and the global south, enhancing the research and innovation capacity of both.

One study announced today engages researchers from the humanities, social sciences and medicine to inform health policy and care in regions affected by conflict and fragility. The R4HC-MENA project will enable countries in the Middle East to grow and sustain research capacity that can critically inform aspects of health development relating to armed conflict.

Another project, cutting across engineering, biomedicine, and social and environmental sciences, is looking to improve water supply, treatment and recycling in western Africa. Working with partners in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania and Ethiopia, the RECIRCULATE project will build research capacity, creating ways to reduce the impact of water-borne disease on vulnerable populations.

The GCRF, which was announced by the government in autumn 2015, forms part of the UK’s commitment to official development assistance. With funding from the research councils, funding councils, national academies and the UK Space Agency, the programme aims to “ensure UK science takes the lead in addressing the problems faced by developing countries, while developing our ability to deliver cutting-edge research”. The GCRF strategy published in June identifies a number of broad challenge areas—food, health, education, water and energy—around which to focus research projects.

Funding in international development has come under scrutiny in recent years, particularly in terms of whether the impact and positive benefits are sustained beyond the end of a project. Part of the problem has been the tendency of organisations based primarily in the global north to identify and impose solutions on developing countries without acknowledging the local context. To try and avoid this, international development programmes have shifted focus to facilitate country-led solutions.

Local expertise are essential in finding lasting solutions to developing countries’ problems. One example funded by the Growing Research Capability call that draws upon such expertise is the Crick African Network. This partnership between the Francis Crick Institute in London and universities and research institutes in the Gambia, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa will support an Africa Career Accelerator programme providing training for African scientists to work on HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.

Another example is a project to strengthen alliances across a network of UK and Indian experts in crop science, hydrology, social science and policy. The project aims to help communities in India by supporting the development of a collaborative research programme focused on sustainable crop production and resource use.

Building collaborations between researchers in the UK and the global south is a theme running through all the GCRF’s efforts. Shortly before the Growing Research Capability announcement, for example, RCUK launched its latest call from the Collective Fund. This looks to create of a number of interdisciplinary research hubs. These hubs aim to stimulate transformative approaches to address complex development challenges. Each aims to produce a step-change in research for development.

This commitment to funding interdisciplinary research shows the research councils’ ability to work together as they transition towards UK Research and Innovation and establish UKRI as a world-leader in funding research for development.

Stuart Taberner is director of international and interdisciplinary research at Research Councils UK.


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