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Augar Under the Microscope: STEMing the Tide

Those teaching and conducting research in Science and Engineering are slowly waking up to the realisation that cutting fees to £7,500 across the board will impact upon their efforts to a great extent. Whilst Arts and Humanities staff have been quick off the mark with a defence, others have been slower to realise the impact. The roots of the issue lie in the extent of cross-subsidy and a lack of understanding about how science works. The link between research facilities and teaching are not always appreciated and only those universities with well-founded laboratories will survive the cuts.

Little has been said about the potential effects on the provision of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) degree subjects and research in the flurry of analyses surrounding the long and detailed Augar Post-18 Education review. There is no meaningful acknowledgement of the role of research and no guarantee that there will be adequate ‘top up’ funding for STEM subjects. There is likely to be a disproportionate effect on STEM teaching and research unless a further more complex review of funding takes place across all university activities.

In the run up to the release of the Augar report, there was considerable angst about likely effects on Arts and Humanities subjects if there were differential fees that took account of lower cost degrees. This would mean a large loss of income for universities that have substantial numbers of students in these subjects. However, Augar shied away from that as a solution and instead opted to recommend a cut of fees to £7,500 across the board. The review neatly sidestepped the real costs of different degrees and shifted emphasis and resources into Further Education.

What are the costs and can they be calculated with any accuracy?

Not widely reported was an analysis (Understanding costs of undergraduate provision in Higher Education Costing study report) done by KPMG for the Department of Education and released to coincide with the Augar report coming out. It provides a detailed analysis of what a degree costs using the Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC) methodology. However, the TRAC system relies on a great deal of self-reporting of staff time on research and teaching. This is done as a percentage of time and not as numbers of hours worked. I recorded a percentage of my time that was well over sixty hours per week when I reported. Had I recorded teaching as a percentage of my contracted 35 hours per week it would have topped 80% most of the time and my research might have been considered to be offered for free. This is not unusual and many staff work well beyond their contracted hours, as reported by UCU in 2016. It is fair to say that the accuracy of TRAC is open to some doubt (see excellent review at WONKHE yesterday ‘TRACing the costs of teaching in higher education’).

Despite this, three things emerge. Firstly, a degree in Arts and Humanities costs much less that one in Engineering and the Sciences. Secondly, there is considerable variation across different (unnamed) institutions and last, but not least, all of the costs are currently above £7,500.

On average, a degree in Engineering costs £11,394 per student per year. This takes into account staff pay, central services, estates and all other costs. Chemistry, Physics and Maths cost £10,500 whereas Biosciences costs £10,200. In contrast, Social Sciences, History and Economics cost £8,855 and English law and modern languages £ 8,801. With current fees set at £9,250, it is easy to see that there must be a degree of cross subsidy between subjects to break even. There will be inevitable efficiency savings and contraction of universities across all subjects with fees at £7,500. However, it is very likely that STEM subjects will bear the brunt of cuts.

Reactions and capping of STEM numbers.

The first reaction of university managements through Universities UK was to seek a fee ‘top up’ from government across all subjects to maintain the status quo. The response by Education Secretary, Damian Hinds in Parliament fell well short of a reassurance. Indeed, former ministers, Neil Willetts and Jo Johnson, warned in the Times Higher Education, ‘Ex-ministers warn Treasury will not make up funding if fees cut’, that additional funding was unlikely. Willets said that replacing lost income was “not credible” and Johnson said that “there’s a real doubt as to whether the money would be found”.

As a precaution, plans will already be underway in universities to increase efficiency and cut costs. The well-worn strategy of merging modules and replacing senior staff with less experienced fixed-term staff will become even more commonplace. A likely scenario is that only STEM subjects will receive a ‘top up’ grant (excluding Medicine, Dentistry and Nursing that are separate strategic concerns). However, the review failed to show clarity on how the additional ‘top up’ costs for STEM will allocated. The viability of STEM degrees will be determined by the provision of additional funding when cross-subsidy is no longer an option. The Government may effectively cap the numbers of students taking STEM degrees through strict limits on ‘top up’ funding. Institutions are likely to be forced to bid for this funding and those not well resourced for Science and Engineering may opt to close their courses. The impact of this would increase the A-level grades needed to study these subjects and more technical minded school leavers having to enter Further Education instead. STEM subjects may become less accessible to disadvantaged students as a result.

The impact on research.

The impact on research in STEM subjects may be much greater; even though Augar did not consider this with, “Funding for research is outside the scope of this review. It is for government, business and other interested bodies to fund this adequately and directly”. How managements assess the viability of their STEM degrees as a result of Augar will be influenced by success in research along with funding through QR as a result of the Research Excellence Framework or REF in 2021. Those that are well funded will be more capable of retaining a critical mass of staff and facilities. However, with a potential loss of EU funding and the Full Economic Costing (FEC) model used by the Research Councils, that asks universities to absorb 20% of the full cost of projects, pressure will mount on research capacity. Despite the TRAC methodology nominally distinguishing between teaching and research, there are often lean times between research grants. This results in student fees paying for staff time in research activities to some extent. Indeed, students might expect that the staff teaching them are also engaged in research at the leading edge. This idea was reinforced by Simon Marginson (Professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education) in the Guardian earlier today ‘The Augar report pits arts against sciences – and both lose out’. There he points out that “The committee must know that research is subsidised from teaching funding. How else does the UK sustain the world’s second best science system with the seventh largest R&D spend?” I suspect that the Augar Committee did not understand this as it does not form not part of their experience.

A catastrophe in the making.

There will be a catastrophic decline in STEM capacity unless the government gets to grips quickly with the ‘top up’ funding needed to support STEM teaching and research. With the exception of Bev Robinson, who has extensive experience of technical provision in Further Education, the Augar panel has no background in Science and Engineering in universities. Along with most of their political masters, there is little understanding of how science works. Augar demonstrates that the ‘Two Cultures’ defined by Charles (CP) Snow in 1959 still dominates our society. Scientists are playing a bit part in high level government decisions on post-18 education. The impact on the role of the UK in the technical challenges facing a world in environmental crisis will be diminished. This will be especially pronounced in those universities with lower QR income from REF and fewer research contracts and grants. Another, much wider, funding assessment and coordinated plan is needed to avoid institutions falling below a critical mass in STEM subjects and then ceasing to provide them. Once lost they will be very unlikely to return.

Mike Larkin is Emeritus Professor of Microbial Biochemistry at Queen’s University Belfast. He taught Microbiology and Biochemistry for 36 years and was the Chair of the Queen’s University Environmental Science and Technology Research (QUESTOR) Centre for twenty five years. He served on the planning and finance committee and the Senate of Queens University before retiring in 2017.


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