Policy Update – March 2023

Sharon Witherspoon MBE FAcSS, Head of Policy, Academy of Social Sciences 

Horizon Europe

Two recent developments on UK participation in, and funding for, Horizon Europe.

First, the proposed new UK/ EU  Northern Ireland protocol should, if it is passed, be good not only for people in Northern Ireland but also UK science and researchers.  It was the major hurdle in UK accession to Horizon Europe funding.  That is important not only for scientific collaboration, but of course for funding UK researchers.

But, there are still some issues to be resolved, and some questions for UK social scientists in particular; some of these were visible in the discussion the week before the announcement about NI about Treasury ‘clawing back’ £1.6b that had been set aside for the ’22-23 financial year for Horizon Europe funding.

There are good Twitter threads by Ben Johnson at University of Strathclyde @ersatzben and Hetan Shah of the British Academy on some of the complexities.  The gist is that is represents an end of the year transfer of funds that could not get out the door in the current financial year, and government ministers have said they still hope for Horizon affiliation.

However, this does not mean the transfer is unimportant.  First, Treasury did not issue proactive explanations, and nor did the new Department for Science.  More important, in the current fiscal context it highlights the fact that deferred spending affects UK research now, especially in the context of growing financial pressures on universities. Of course, some elements of UK public spending on research have increased, but additional funds for UKRI have been delayed too, and social science funding has remained fairly flat.  Treasury took back various other science ‘underspends’ and it isn’t clear whether these will be given back.  If they don’t, not only does it affect ‘jam today’ but it affects the base for assessing ‘jam tomorrow’.

This illustrates some of the points made by various social scientists specialising in science policy.  The earlier UK/ EU accession accord needs to be revisited – but also more concrete details known.  The UK will move from being a net beneficiary of EU science spending (and the UK social sciences were especially successful) to a net contributor.  Once attention focusses on this, with Treasury playing an ever-larger role, there will be questions about what programmes or areas of work are funded.  Since EU Horizon itself seems to have reduced some social science input compared to Horizon 20 (and there are currently some complaints about how it has got slower, more administratively complicated, and is by design less open to responsive bids), this all suggests a need to watch this space for the potential effects on social science.

At the same time, Tony Blair and William Hague have led a report on what needs to change in UK science policy. (Good summary here.) There is no question that the mainly focusses on STEM sciences.  But even there they express concerns about Treasury micro-management of science policy, and the failure to build long-term research and partnerships on issues which will have to involve the social sciences (net zero, ageing, health service productivity, etc.).

So accession to Horizon Europe, if it does happen, will take some time (not least for new partnerships to be developed) and there are things to watch.  It is likely to reduce Treasury control compared to any ‘Plan B’ that might have resulted if accession were not to place.

Labour policy

Labour’s final policy on tuition fees is probably not settled.  The Shadow Education Secretary is maintaining the 2019 manifesto commitment to abolish tuition fees. But in the light of the fiscal position, and the need to address the commitments on improving early years childcare and teacher pay and school repairs, the education budget is being reviewed (along with several other policy areas).  Meanwhile, if the current policy led to student number caps, there are potential effects on inequality, as these disproportionately affect students from disadvantaged families and in poorer areas of the UK.  We are unlikely to know more until manifestos are produced.

HE policy and financing

Government policies towards HE continue to put pressure on university finances and some aspects are still in flux.

This month has seen reports of uneven distribution of growth in the number of foreign students.  This has provided additional income to some universities at a time when teaching and research income is largely stagnant.  It has also seen reports of a conflict within the government about whether to curtail or shorten the post-study work visas which attract many of these students and which was increased to 2 years in 2019.  It is unclear whether BEIS, the Foreign Office or the Department of Education will outweigh the Home Office.  Student number caps are now biting in Scotland.  A working paper from the Department of Economics at Oxford University explains how changes in the REF 2021 processes, in combination with the retention of the REF 2014 proportional ratios of QR allocation across the main panels, has impacted the 2022 QR funding distributions across several social science disciplines, though universities can of course allocate the QR funding they receive differently.

More positively, Chris Skidmore’s Net Zero Review was published this month to a very positive reaction, including from the Grantham Research Institute at LSE.  It puts universities at the centre of many the recommendations, including social sciences and humanities.

Contact us

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