Policy Update – January 2024

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

REF 2028 delayed

On 7 December, it was announced that REF 2028 will be pushed back a year in recognition of the complexities facing universities. The delay will allow institutions time to prepare for using HESA data to determine REF volume measures, given that the reliability and operability data is crucial to breaking the link between individuals and unit submissions.

The decision followed the publication of a blog in which the Executive Chair of Research England hinted that the weighting given to the research culture element in REF 2028 could be reviewed. A consultation was held over the summer on the proposal to introduce a people, culture and environment section, which would account for 25% of a university’s score – something which now seems increasingly unlikely given concerns raised by both Universities UK and the Russell Group amongst others.

For the social sciences, the 12-month delay may represent an existential threat. 2029 is a long way away, and there is a risk that it leaves more time for civil servants and ministers (of whatever political hue) to become tempted into tinkering with a quality related funding system closely linked to REF outcomes; something which could particularly damage curiosity-driven social science research.

Other news in brief

  • Research vs innovation: The UK Government’s new science minister, Andrew Griffith, has argued that a change is needed in the nation’s spending mix between research and innovation. Speaking at an event by the centre-right thinktank Onward, he said that “the mix of that [money] between pure research and innovation may have to change” if the UK is to achieve its ambition to ‘become a science and technology superpower’. He also warned that there will need to be a cultural change for the ambition to be achieved, including in how the UK divides spending between research and innovation, as well as in the country’s attitude to risk and in the way it measures the success of research. Recommended reading: Although not directly linked, this WonkHE article outlines the range of unpalatable options for making research funding sustainable in UK universities.
  • Horizon signed: On the day that the UK Government finally signed on the dotted line to confirm the UK’s ongoing association to Horizon Europe, a boost was announced for early career researchers seeking to access EU funding. A partnership between the UK Government and the British Academy will see support made available to selected UK researchers applying for Horizon for the first time, through ‘pump priming’ funding, with up to £10,000 available per application. The funding will be available to support those researchers who have not previously had experience, including next generation researchers. The fund will be targeted to ensure it maximises the UK’s involvement in Horizon.
  • Scottish teaching funding: A new briefing from the IfS indicated that Scottish universities receive 21% less teaching funding per student than institutions in England. This academic year, Scottish universities received direct public funding of £7,610 for each Scottish student, 19% less in real terms than in 2013–14, and 21% lower than the amount English universities receive for teaching England-domiciled students.
  • Data infrastructure consultation: The UK Government has launched a consultation on its plans to have a legal framework to protect data infrastructure from security threats. The proposals focus on third-party data centre services, which face:
    • security threats such as cyber-attacks, physical attacks and insider threats;
    • resilience risks resulting from hazards such as human error and extreme weather;
    • limited information-sharing and cooperation across industry, and with HMG, which hamper our ability to appropriately identify and address risks.