Policy Update – July 2023

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

REF 2028 review

Early decisions on what REF 2028 will look like have been published by Research England after the Future Research Assessment Programme concluded its work exploring what to change after REF 2021.

The headline change is that staff will no longer be judged individually on their research outputs, with a new approach to calculating institutional research volume using the average number of staff over a number of years. At the same time, a broader range of research outputs will be accepted, while the range of staff eligible to submit work to the REF will be widened.

For the social sciences, the most significant element of the next stages will be around QR funding. The new report is light on detail, but universities should not assume that the way volume has been used in the past to allocate QR will be repeated on the conclusion of this exercise. This remains a key question yet to be answered – how will resources be allocated as a result of any given methodology? The Academy of Social Sciences will be contributing to the consultations that follow, and will be taking a particular interest in the methodology for allocating QR given its vital importance in supporting social science research across a range of universities.

A more detailed briefing about the proposals and their implications is available on request.

International student dependents cap

The UK Government’s decision to impose new limits on overseas students bringing family with them was expected, but nevertheless represents a major challenge to universities’ business model. Under the new limits, only students on designated research programmes will be able to bring dependants, with a reduction expected in international student numbers for taught programmes – of which courses in Business, Management, Law and Economics have been particularly popular options.

The decision is one which makes little economic sense. International student fees are essential in cross-subsidising both home fees and research programmes, and there is no indication that the UK Government will make up any shortfall. Recently published TRAC data showed that UK universities recorded a deficit of nearly £2bn – but this would have looked significantly worse without international students, who generated a surplus of around £2.7bn – up from £2.3bn in 2020-21.

The Academy of Social Sciences argues that the policy will particularly damage the UK’s world-leading social sciences. Of the 179,545 international students studying in the UK according to recent statistics, 73,910 (41%) were studying across the breadth of social sciences (with 47% studying STEM subjects and 12% arts and humanities). The value of these students cannot be measured in economic terms alone – they also bring a rich diversity of experiences and perspectives to our academic disciplines, and have been instrumental in helping the UK’s social science communities to build and foster global links.

Scottish innovation strategy

In early June, the Scottish Government launched their National Innovation Strategy, less than six months after the Welsh Government’s equivalent. Unlike the Welsh document, Scotland’s contains not only specific actions and metrics, but is also matched by a significant funding pledge. A new £100m innovation fund will be developed with universities (compared to a £15m equivalent fund in Wales), with a focus on four areas: Energy Transition, Health & Life Sciences, Data & Digital Technologies, and Advanced Manufacturing. The strategy also acknowledged that businesses in the ‘research and experimental development in social sciences and humanities’ sector were the most likely to be innovation-active both in Scotland specifically (70.2%) and across the UK more widely (66.5%).