UK Budget 2021: Academy of Social Sciences Statement

The 2021 Budget announcements about research and higher education contain some good news, and some potentially worrying gaps.

AcSS welcomes the news that public R&D will increase to £20bn by 2024-25.  This will be a substantial uplift of over 35%, though much of the uplift is backloaded in that period. Government has acknowledged the previous target of £22bn for public R&D has been delayed until 2026-27.  That is, of course, after the next election. For the foreseeable future, the UK will be spending less on public and private sector R&D than the OECD average, though the pledged increase is still good news.

With its pledge to raise the core budget of Innovate UK to 1bn p.a., the £800mn promised to ARIA over the period, and a pledge of £2bn p.a. to fund UK participation in the EU Horizon programme (which is still held up by the continuing negotiations over the Brexit arrangements applying to Northern Ireland), a good chunk of that additional funding is already spoken for.  It is therefore unclear how much of the funding will go to UKRI (much less to social science research) or to QR.  Some of the public research funding may also go to support the government’s proposals for ‘levelling up’, due in the next few months.  We will be watching developments closely.

Less welcome is the delay in reinstating the commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on overseas aid until 2024/25, and then only if the government’s judgement of fiscal circumstances allow.  Whether that will include an expansion in international development research spending, such as the raft of research grants cancelled or pared down earlier this year is again unclear.  This affects both STEM science and the social sciences, and reduces the UK’s international influence.

Altogether absent is the expected announcement of proposals for the higher education student funding regime, including a response to the 2019 Augar Review.

The Treasury Report on the 2021 Budget and Spending Review says “The government will set out further details of the Higher Education settlement alongside the response to the Augar report, which will be published in the coming weeks.”

This comes amid reports of continuing disagreements between the Treasury, the Department for Education, and No. 10 about the costs of student loans and how to split spending between higher education and the planned expansion of vocational training.  This comes amid clear evidence about the growth in the number of 18 year olds that will take place over the next decade and their increasing aspirations to attend universities. Even with a welcome expansion in vocational education and qualifications (some of which will undoubtedly involve universities), there are implications for ‘levelling up’ here too.

The Office for Budget Responsibility’s planning projections do not address whether future funding will recognise the growth in aspirations for tomorrow’s students to attend university or whether real-terms unit funding for UK student tuition will be further eroded. Over the past decade, tuition income has not only helped subsidise research in many institutions, but has meant that the higher costs of STEM teaching were subsidised by non-STEM students. Increasingly, many universities, especially research-intensive universities, have to turn to increasing the number of international students to balance their books.  This too has implications for ability to meet the UK’s demographic challenges and the growth in UK student aspirations in the years ahead.

It has now been about 2 ½ years since Augar reported, and it is simply unclear what the government’s response will be, when it will come, or what it will mean not only for UK universities but for the young people of the UK.

About the author

Sharon Witherspoon MBE FAcSS is Head of Policy at the Academy of Social Sciences