Universities Scotland – risking a reputation for candour?

By stewartb

A few days ago (27 May) TuS drew attention to an article in The Herald with this message: ’SNP ministers accused of threatening university excellence with research cuts – University bosses have accused ministers of threatening Scottish research excellence after it emerged top institutions face swingeing grant reductions of up to 10 per cent. Growing pressure on Nicola Sturgeons government follows publication of research allocations for the 2022/23 academic year …’

See: https://talkingupscotlandtwo.com/2022/05/27/university-leaders-accused-of-not-liking-the-facts/

The Herald’s piece related to a Universities Scotland statement written by Professor Sally Mapstone, Principal and Vice-Chancellor at the University of St Andrews and Vice Convener of Universities Scotland.

Source: https://www.universities-scotland.ac.uk/funding/  

In this the Professor sought to draw an unfavourable comparison between the Scottish Government’s ‘research cuts’ and Westminster. She wrote: ‘The UK Government is increasing its investment in research in institutions in England, with a commitment to spending 2.4% of GDP on research and development by 2027.’ What is being peddled is clear: research excellence is better protected by Westminster than by the Scottish Government.

As I wrote btl on TuS at the time, ‘note the shift in the metric used here to imply comparison with Scotland.’ JustONE funding stream from the Scottish Funding Council is being compared to TOTAL funding for research from the UK government. Does the statement’s author think no one is alert enough to notice?

Other things about the statement and the press coverage are problematic to say the least.  The fact that the SFC funding in question is increasing overall seems to be ignored. The fact that in the SFC’s allocation to individual institutions – based on an established funding formula – there are ‘winners’ (some very substantial ‘winners’) as well as a few ‘losers’ seems to be ignored.

Because I am heartily fed up with misrepresentation, I was curious to delve deeper into the comparison with UK government spending, something that Universities Scotland chose to make.

The relevant comparison

If Universities Scotland or The Herald wish to draw comparisons, is it unreasonable to expect that they compare like with like? It is perfectly possible to compare similar funding streams associated with an organisation performing a similar function in England to the SFC. This is the university funding body now called Research England.

The House of Commons Library (HoCL) has recently published a review of funding council grants in England between 2010-11 and 2021-22.

Source: HoCL (19 November 2021) Higher education funding in England (and Reference Table https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-7973/CBP07973-ref-table.xlsx)

The table, taken from this HoCL report, gives recurrent grant data from England’s funding council in 2020—21 prices.

There are several aspects of the data in this table that are noteworthy: see the change over time in the recurrent funding stream for teaching!  But for the topic of this blog post, it is the research funding lines that are pertinent.

There has been an overall reduction in recurrent research grant funding in England since 2011-12. Even capital funding for research in England from the funding council is at its lowest level in 2021-22 for four years. Are Universities Scotland and The Herald aware of these comparisons? How on earth has research excellence in England’s universities survived these sustained cuts imposed by the government in Westminster?

In more detail on recent years, the table below comes from Research England itself. Note the standstill funding for the ‘Quality-related research (QR)’ grant and the overall reduction in the total research grant in 2021-22.

Are Universities Scotland and The Herald unaware of these facts too? What can Universities Scotland learn from the sector in England?  It seems institutions there have been resilient to Tory government imposed threats to research excellence!

As far as I can tell, Research England has yet to announce its grant allocation for 2022-23. However, the main point stands: reductions or standstills in funding council grant support for research don’t seem to get politicised to the same degree in England. Moreover, claims of a ‘threat to research excellence’ even when a government is overseeing a sustained, overall reduction in funding council research grants, don’t seem to arise in England.  Odd that!


2 thoughts on “Universities Scotland – risking a reputation for candour?

  1. Fantastic piece of research Stewart.

    As for the question you pose regarding “Is the Herald unaware of these facts”. I suspect that the Herald has no staff left capable of any decent research these days, even if it wanted to.

    The Herald content relies more and more on Labour, Tory and Lib Dems puff pieces, innuendo and rehashing of the same old half truths to try and keep going. Plus of course it’s star offering, “Five things we learned about Rangers last night”, again and again..

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Superbly done.
    Obviously John-Paul Holden and those quoted therein will have had access to the exact same information, but elected to ignore it for the sake of negative framing.


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