Policy Update – August 2023

Ed Bridges, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Academy of Social Sciences 

Student number controls

The UK Government has revealed its long-awaited final response to the Augar review of tertiary education. Under the proposals, universities in England will be forced to limit the number of students taking “low-value” degrees, a measure which is most likely to hit working class and black, Asian and minority ethnic applicants. Courses will be capped if they do not have a sufficiently high proportion of graduates getting a professional job, going into postgraduate study or starting a business. Critics argue that these objectives could be achieved already (and has been the case in the recent past) through enforcement of student outcome provisions by the Office for Students in England (OfS).

It should be noted that the number caps would be adopted as an alternative to minimum entry requirements for university courses. Ministers had been warned previously that such a measure would require complex exemptions to avoid penalising groups such as mature students.

Anyone interested in the likely implications for the social sciences should examine this visualisation, which shows how groups of students in different subject areas perform against the threshold and a benchmark which takes into account the make-up of the student body in question. Any course below the threshold could potentially fall within the sights of the OfS.

Intriguingly, in the same month as the ‘low-value degrees’ announcement, the Department for Education in England published statistics on the graduate labour market, showing that graduates are far more likely to be in a job than their non-graduate counterparts and are likely to earn £11,500 more (£8,000 when adjusted for inflation). The gaps are also widening, with the employment rate for working-age graduates in 2022 at 87.3% (+0.6% on 2021) while for non-graduates it was 69.6% (-0.2%).


Despite rumours of a deal being close, no announcement has been made about the UK’s association to Horizon Europe. Last month, England’s Science Minister, George Freeman told the Political Thinking podcast that “we just need to agree a fair price… It is a seven-course restaurant and we were locked out for the first two or three courses, so we need to not be charged for what we missed”.

In contrast, Sir Patrick Vallance, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, said the UK should join the EU’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme “yesterday”, adding that the Pioneer plan “isn’t sensible” as an alternative proposition. And James Wilsdon, Professor of Science Policy at UCL, told BBC News: “In haggling over the budget, the UK [is] emphasising short-term costs over the huge long-term gains that will flow from UK participation.”

Pressure for a deal remains, not least after figures showed that the UK lost out on hosting almost 400 prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants in the past couple of years as a result of delayed association. The news came as the ERC launched a call for its 2024 ERC Starting Grants, which offer up to €1.5 million over five years to promising early career researchers. Although UK-based researchers are technically eligible to apply for ERC grants, they are unable to directly access any funding they win while association is pending and instead have the option of applying for back-up funding from the UK Government.

Rumours suggest that the issue of association may come to a head in the autumn, with the Prime Minister taking a decision ahead of his party’s conference – either framing a deal as a great victory, or a decision to walk away as a ‘Brexit freedom’.

Other news in brief

  • Speaking to the UK Parliament’s Science, Innovation & Technology Committee on 5 July, the UK Government’s new Chief Scientific Adviser Angela McLean revealed her top five priorities in the role. These cover science and technology for resilience; a more scientific civil service; delivering the government’s plan to make the UK a science and technology superpower by 2030; artificial intelligence, and climate change. As well as articulating her interest in using science and technology to drive the UK’s economic growth, she also emphasised the need for strong skills across government in how to ask for science and use it. The country should have a “civil service with scientific literacy at every level that looks at science as a key pillar right across all areas of policymaking”, McLean said.
  • The Welsh Government published its annual remit letter to HEFCW for the 2023/24 academic year; the last remit letter before HEFCW is supplanted by the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER). One notable point was that the Minister is openly questioning whether QR, PGR and RWIF represent value for money in terms of research and innovation funding and could herald a reform for such funding in the future. If the aim is to boost funding from UK sources (such as UKRI streams) then HEFCW might face pressure to show how QR, PGR and RWIF are generating an increased volume of high-quality and successful bids.
  •  Quality-related (QR) research funding for English universities is to increase by less than 0.4% in the next academic year, Research England has said. QR funding will rise from £1.974bn in 2022-23 to £1.981bn in 2023-24, an increase of 0.35%. This follows a 10% increase last year.