Saturday, 13 December 2014

Follow the money

I don’t often write about universities on this blog, because to do so seems too inward-looking. But current developments underway in UK universities should be of real public concern. I’m referring in particular to a massive shift towards requiring academics to generate substantial amounts of grant income to fund their research. To understand why that matters, it’s necessary to understand a little bit about how research funding works in the UK (more precisely I should say England in terms of what follows, although there is considerable similarity in the rest of the UK). There are two main routes. One is the government funding distributed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) on the basis of the quality of research undertaken (hence it is called QR funding), with this quality being assessed by the Research Excellence Framework(REF), the latest results of which are due next week. The other route is research grant income (RGI) which may come from a variety of industrial, charitable and government sources, with the UK’s research councils (RCUK) being the most important as regards the latter.
With respect to QR funding, this is driven mainly by assessments of the quality of publications (but also by the wider impact of these and some other factors). Academics undertake QR funded research as part of their contractual duties and are not tied to any particular projects. RGI funding, by contrast, is based on bids to support particular projects. QR funding therefore offers considerable freedom of research focus, but it is not a ‘free for all’ since the REF assessment is stringent and, indeed, a source of much complaint from academics.
In recent months, many British universities have been imposing massive pressure on academics to increase RGI and in some cases have set very harsh targets on individuals to secure such funding, under threat of redundancy. Three cases in particular have attracted some publicity: those of King’s College London, Warwick University and Imperial. The latter example has a particularly tragic twist with the suicide of a Professor of Toxicology, apparently linked to the demands for RGI generation placed upon him, recalling other cases of suicide in organizations discussed in a previous post.
These issues relate to many others discussed on this blog and in my book, especially the general impact of the New Public Management and the ways that this has given licence to capricious managerial privilege and, for that matter, bullying. How this relates to universities are brilliantly explored by in a 2012 article by Yiannis Gabriel and, with respect to business schools, in a 2013 article by Martin Parker. But I want to focus on some more narrow issues here.
One is just about the financial rationale of what is happening. Suppose we want to be very ‘hard-headed’ and say something like “well, of course, research must pay its way: it’s high time these academics learnt to live in the real world”. Apart from any other problems with such a view, it neglects the fact of QR funding. Academics who publish work judged to be excellent by the REF generate income for their universities via HEFCE. Why, then, insist that only RGI money matters?
The other is even more important. Funding research via RGI requires that the funder be persuaded in advance of the research that it is worthwhile. That presents several very important issues, both practical and political. On the former - it’s very well-known that the value of research is often only apparent many years after it has been conducted. The computer applications of pure maths are obvious examples. On the latter – research that seems controversial or unfashionable will be a poor prospect for deliberative funding decisions. The two are linked, since it is almost inevitable that grant and project based funding decisions will be small-c conservative: they are based upon existing knowledge and understanding.
This has a particular significance when it comes to the funding of critically-oriented research about organizations and management. For all that academics may complain about REF, it has allowed such research to flourish to the extent – and it is a considerable extent – that it has generated publications deemed to be of high quality and hence generating QR funding. An approach based on RGI offers a much less propitious environment for at least two reasons. One is that the very fractured and fractious state of the field makes it hard to get consensus from referees on grant applications. Another is that, to the extent that RGI requires identifiable end users, critical research, whose ‘users’ are typically civil society at large, is likely to struggle.
Of course we are not in that situation yet, and that is one of the strangest aspects of this story. For it is not that QR funding has dried up. True, there have been for quite some time persistent calls that all government university research funding should be channelled through RCUK. But that is not yet the case. It is tempting, then, to read the preoccupation of university managers with individual RGI records as a matter of managerial control for its own sake, rather than financial exigency. If so, academics who have for so long complained about REF may find themselves in the ironic position of defending it in the face of the emerging landscape RGI targets.
That in turn should be a real worry beyond academia. I suppose it is just about possible to imagine at least applied scientific and medical research being funded by industry and research councils, and some humanities and social science research being funded by charities and research councils. But even in these cases much of value will be lost. It’s very difficult, though, to imagine that much in the way of critical organizational research will get funded, which means that one of the core areas of human existence will mainly get researched uncritically. If in doubt, look at the RCUK web page entitled ‘Research and Business: A Productive Partnership’ telling us that “the Research Councils are a source of ideas, knowledge, expertise, skills and research infrastructure for your business”. No mention of the public good there, you may notice, for all that the funds come from each and every UK taxpayer.

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