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It’s all about rocks, fees and REF: Focus on Scotland’s Universities

The stone edifice of free university tuition for students from Scotland heated up last week with the release of the first Scottish Funding Council report on its review of ‘Coherent Provision and the Sustainability of Colleges and Universities’. This emerged just as the Ofqual board minutes were released in England (TEFS 23rd October 2020 ‘Ofqual lets the cat out of the bag’). A decision made by the Scottish government, in changing their minds on how they had standardised exam grades, blindsided the government in England and led to a chaotic U-turn. The review of provision in Scotland’s universities and colleges may now herald a further divergence from arrangements in the rest of the UK as the case for independence unfolds. REF is on hold for now while the UK government reviews its REF agenda. The hope is the deficit in teaching provision caused by REF is looked at more critically. 

Melting rocks. 

While rocks have yet to ‘melt in the sun’, there seem to be some significant cracks appearing. The SNP may be regretting the day its former leader, Alex Salmond uttered the words “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students”. Meanwhile, the COVID examinations crisis revealed what was under the rocks, and it does not look good. It seems they support a structure that largely protects the most advantaged. This was revealed on the 18th October 2020 in a report on the distribution of downgraded of exam results in Scotland this summer. It took a closer look under the weighty stone of ‘standardisation’ and found things the government would like to be left alone. Those with greater advantages seem to fare better and take the pole position in access to the elite universities without the burden of fees (see TEFS 30th October 2020 ‘A little less conversation, a little more action please’ for more on this). Just as the ‘Stone of Destiny’ has resided in Edinburgh since 1996, it seems Scotland’s fate is determined by ‘stones’ that some would prefer were left alone. 

Looking to a different future. 

On Tuesday, the Scottish Funding Council published the first of its planned consultation reports on Higher Education ‘Phase One Report on the Review of Coherent Provision and the Sustainability of Colleges and Universities’

The report summarises the input from a wide range of interested people and organisations and defines ten key themes and areas of focus for phase two planned for February 2021. It is a comprehensive review of 88 pages with 8 other accompanying documents. 

TEFs made a submission that was only one of over 100 submissions. However, it was interesting to find that much of the report reflected the TEFS analysis and indicates some common ideas about what should be done. There is a strong commitment to addressing widening participation by the least advantaged groups of students. Also, acknowledgement that the current access funding is concentrated in the post-92 institutions. TEFs had argued that different incentives must be offered to the older universities to enable such students to aspire to education in their universities. 

The no fees policy is under scrutiny. 

When former SNP leader, Alex Salmond promised “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students” in 2013 he set in place a policy that would be difficult to back out of. Indeed, it was literally carved in stone and erected on the campus of Heriot Watt university in 2014 after other universities were reluctant to accept the honour. After consultation with students, the stone has been removed in May of this year (University to remove Alex Salmond's tuition fees stone (BBC News 20th may 2020)

The assumption at the start of the current consultation was that “The Scottish Government’s stated policy is that free tuition helps remove barriers to widening access and participation, and builds a strong social contract with students”. Thus “We have not taken the issue further given government policy”. 

Despite this restriction, the thorny issued of government policy on free tuition for all students from Scotland, regardless of family support, is addressed and will make for uncomfortable reading by the incumbent SNP government. 

Sustaining research funding is partly addressed with a commitment to look again at the role international student fees subsidise research. However, the influence of funding determined by the Research Excellence Framework in 2021 (REF2021) was ducked at this time. But I expect it will not be left alone as the next funding cycle starts next year. It may be no coincidence that the UK Research Minister, Amanda Solloway, announced a review of REF on 20th of October 2020 ‘Science Minister on ‘The Research Landscape’. It is hardly a recipe for radical change with “Recognising the importance of protecting the current REF and valuing it” and it seems more is better with “More quality time spent on research”. The impact on teaching and the links to teaching appear to be buried out of sight. 

Beyond REF2021 and a teaching deficit. 

Research funding In Scotland is apportioned as a Research Excellence Grant (REG). This is derived from the Research Excellence Framework or REF which is a UK-wide system for assessing the quality of research in UK universities. It largely benefits and reinforces the larger Russell Group and pre-92 universities. TEFS replied to the review by arguing that REF should be radically reformed or abandoned to lessen the impact on teaching provision and student support. 

The last exercise was in 2014 and the next one is due to be completed in 2021, despite the COVID-19 crisis (REF2021). The review in Scotland decided to avoid any controversy with “Institutions are therefore currently finalising their submissions to REF2021 and consequently it would not be appropriate for us to 55 indicate possible changes to our approach to research funding in advance of the completion of REF2021, to avoid affecting submissions to the exercise”. 

Yet there were still considerable rumblings reported and “Strong views were expressed about the administrative complexity and resource intensity of the REF”. This is a considerable understatement and those who have endured previous rounds and REF will roll their eyes at this. The impact on delivering teaching in many research intensive universities has been profoundly negative as highlighted by TEFS back in June 2018 with ‘Research and Teaching: The price of researchers not teaching’. Research dominance has side-lined teaching and became the main goal of these institutions. It has generated a deficit in teaching by the best researchers. Research was the top priority when the COVID-19 crisis emerged and was backed by government safety netting their research first (see TEFS 4th May 2020 ‘Universities to get 'payday loan' sticking plaster’). Then it emerged that support for student hardship funds was to be cut in England in an astoundingly callous move (see TEFS 11th September 2020 ‘Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support’). 

The teaching vs research dilemma. 

Anyone who has tried to navigate their way through running a busy research laboratory whilst also teaching hundreds of students will recognise the dilemma posed by management pressure descending from government policy. Maintaining REF imperatives, while expecting staff to adjust to online teaching, shows how out of touch the government and university hierarchies have become. 

Those running a research laboratory will also be well aware of being told, as the review acknowledges, “Research is a loss-making activity, and it is therefore important that universities address this through other surplus generating activity”. Of course, this means diverting fees to paying staff to spend most of their time generating research outputs,  and now extra income. This becomes a vortex into which more and more time and funding is needed to fill the gaps. A cross-UK review of REF must also assess the impact it has on effective teaching in our best universities. We must do this for fairness and to compete on a world stage for generations to come.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

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