With the fifth term of the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) at an end, and erstwhile Members engaged in the strange dance that is socially distanced electoral campaigning, many in Welsh universities will be reflecting on the past five years.
Despite a few shining lights, it was an unedifying time for research and innovation.
This has been yet another Senedd term in which debates over student funding appear to have crowded-out wider consideration of what, exactly, Welsh universities are for. Characteristically, ministerial statements have tended to focus on increases in part-time students or growth in postgraduate numbers, often accompanied by a questionable use of statistics including a frankly unhealthy tendency to move the base year for comparison in ways that (surprise!) allow policy success to be proclaimed.
To the extent that research and innovation features at all, soundbites – complacent soundbites, at that – predominate. One recent and striking example was when First Minister Mark Drakeford told a plenary meeting of the Senedd (on 23 February 2021) that Welsh universities punch above their weight in terms of research quality and grants. Which may be comforting to those of us who work in those institutions but serves to mask an alarming picture of underperformance in terms of spending on research and innovation.
According to UKRI’s own figures for 2018-19, Research Councils and Innovate UK spent £5.4bn across the UK, only £131m of which was spent in Wales. This amounted to 2.4% of the total and £42 per capita (namely the lowest such figure among the UK’s comparable nations and regions). If research spending were devolved and fed through the Barnett formula, then the Welsh Government could expect to receive an allocation equivalent to around 5.9% of the total. So much for punching above our weight…
As if this were not serious enough in its own right, Welsh universities are about to lose what has been until now one of their very few comparative advantages in research and innovation funding — ready access to EU structural funds.
From the dawn of democratic devolution in 1999, the Welsh Government had extensive control over how EU cash was spent in Wales. EU structural funds, in particular, were used extensively by Welsh universities as a means of bumping up the research and innovation coffers.
Brexit means that those days are gone. Not only that, but it is clear that – whatever the “levelling up” rhetoric – UK ministers are intent on using replacement schemes to pursue shorter-term and nakedly partisan goals. Strikingly last month’s UK Budget saw £4.8bn allocated to a Levelling Up Fund that seemed to focus on public infrastructure (transport, high streets etc) with just £200m to pilot the replacement for structural funds for the whole UK.
In addition, the language used to describe that pilot implied a much greater focus on local projects and perhaps less of the “regional” approach that had allowed Welsh universities to use structural funds for capital projects. Henceforth, any Welsh university south of the M4 that claims its new lab benefits Merthyr Tydfil had better start building it there (or at least have endorsement from the council). It will also have to deal with some of the most shameless pork-barrel politicking the UK has seen in some time.
Welsh income, UK costs
Ignoring the soundbites, Wales has the lowest level of R&D spending among comparable UK nations and regions, and that is before EU funding disappears. Welsh universities also receive a lower level of per capita funding for education, because of a lower overall fee level — £9,000, compared to England’s £9,250 — and a less lucrative settlement for subsidising high cost subjects.
In addition, the UK Government’s reform of England’s T-grant will move money towards high-tariff, research-intensive and STEM-active universities (bar those in London). This is the kind of change that will hit the average institution but could benefit English Russell Group universities outside England’s capital. Research-intensive Welsh universities are thus trying to remain competitive with institutions that already benefit from higher per capita income and whose advantage seems destined to increase.
It’s in keeping with a double pressure often felt by those charged with keeping the books in Welsh universities: pensions and pay-scales dealt with at the UK level, income set at the Welsh level. If those two sides of the ledger stop talking to one another, then it’s quite obvious that you have a problem.
What should Wales do?
As luck would have it, the Welsh Government has had a partial remedy to hand since 2018, which is when Professor Graeme Reid published the findings of his independent review for the Welsh Government of how it supports research and innovation. Reid delivered three very clear spending recommendations, even having the foresight to anticipate the UK Government’s power-grab in the context of the replacement for EU funds:
- £71m per annum for QR, maintained in real terms.
- £35m per annum St David’s Fund, a Welsh equivalent to HEIF (or £100m per annum if Wales got control of replacement EU funding – which, of course, didn’t happen).
- £30m Future of Wales Fund to reward those institutions who bring in UK-level cash.
The Welsh Government accepted the review’s recommendations but has not implemented them in full. Taking the three key recommendations in turn, in terms of QR, we are at £71m per annum but there have not been real-term increases. Wales now has a Research Wales Innovation Fund in lieu of the second recommendation, but the fund size is £15m per annum not £35m. Meanwhile, the Future of Wales Fund seems to have disappeared from sight.
Progress is waning and the Welsh Government’s response is concerning. For deflection, and outright error, the Finance Minister suggested that Reid’s recommendations depended on Wales having control of replacement EU funds. For obfuscation, the Education Minister implied that the £15m Research Wales Innovation Fund fulfilled all three of Reid’s recommendations.
There is now a sustained pattern of the last Welsh Government resiling from both the conclusions and recommendations of its own review, all the while avoiding the hard questions about what it wants from research and innovation. Meanwhile, Welsh universities are left competing for a shrinking pot of UKRI funding against better-funded English institutions.
The Sixth Senedd
Given that the parties are still in the process of announcing key policy pledges and publishing their manifestos, it’s currently too soon to weigh up the future prospects for research and innovation in Welsh universities. But one thing should be clear to all: punching above your weight is not only unsustainable in the long run, it’s the opposite of strategy. While a lightweight can land a few deft blows, eventually the heavyweight will flatten them. Whatever its political complexion, the next Welsh Government needs to decide if that’s the fate that it wishes for the country’s researchers.