You can’t save research without saving universities

There is an idea doing the rounds that university research can be saved where a university fails. James Coe isn't so sure

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

The Times has reported that:

Officials in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology have drawn up contingency plans for universities in the event that they fail which would protect researchers and their research. Under the plans, other universities would sponsor PhD students and be given additional funding.

It seems that in this scenario the government would allow some parts of the sector to fail while parachuting the research and researchers that they value to other institutions. The government could attach conditions on efficiencies, consolidation, and transfers as part of the funding, and allow the market to decide whether other universities wish to pick up what remains.

It would be the single largest experiment in shaking up the distribution of research funding and researchers. However, it is also fraught with difficulties.

At the moment there is some mobility of researchers between institutions. Some PhD students carry out dual PhDs, PhD students often work with external examiners from other institutions, and there are often informal arrangements where a PhD student will finish their research elsewhere if their supervisor leaves before their programme ends. Researchers also often move between institutions and on occasion take their teams with them.


However, this kind of mobility is usually premeditated (or at least anticipated) and voluntary. It is entirely different to try and centrally manage a research reallocation regime.

The first major hurdle is that asking universities to take on more research would also mean asking them to take on the liability for the research cost. The average amount of the full economic cost (FEC) of research recovered by institutions is around 69 per cent. Postgraduate research funding recovery has been below 46 per cent for the past three years.

Even if a university only absorbed research funded by research councils they would need to cover the 30 per cent funding gap. The research deficit, the gap between funded and unfunded research, is now at £5bn. The government will not save every piece of research but even a small-scale multi-year commitment to universities to stand up research could be expensive.

The government would have to fund the shortfall to incentivise universities to take on additional researchers. It could do this either through new money or by taking money from existing research budgets. The former option seems unlikely and the latter option would only add pressure to existing research budgets.

The second issue is how to make an orderly transfer of researchers where a provider is undergoing, to use OfS’ term, a “disorderly” market exit. If a provider is in danger of running out of cash their efforts will be focussed on their own viability, contingencies, and protection plans. There will have been little thought on the cumulative transfer of research.

In this scenario researchers would be faced with a few choices. There might be a happy match of a provider that can accommodate their research. Understandably, some researchers would choose to leave academia entirely. Some would choose to move somewhere else of their own accord. And in total it means that of a hypothetical pool of researchers the government would wish to continue funding, many might choose for entirely understandable reasons to not wish to continue outside of their own institution.


It is not that the place of transition just has to have compatible research strengths, it has to be compatible with someone’s life and aspirations. It is also not guaranteed that another provider would have access to the same kind of specialist equipment someone was using at their own university.

This is before considering issues of research that relies on local industrial partners, the ease at which IP can be transferred between institutions, what would happen to research groups that are based within institutions, how joint PhD supervision in large doctoral colleges would continue, and the hundreds of other administrative activities that collectively make up a finely tuned ecosystem.

So, you arrive at a situation where in order to move research from one university to another a certain set of criteria has to be met

  • There is sufficient funding to absorb the research liability while the research runs its course.
  • The researcher wishes to move rather than resigning, retiring, or doing something else with their lives.
  • If the research is done as part of a consortium of universities or industrial partners its constituent parts can be transferred between providers.
  • There are contractual levers which allow IP, funding, or employment, to be easily moved between organisations and partners.
  • There is enough capacity between supervisors to take on new PhD students.
  • A potential new university has comparable specialist facilities.

Saving parts of the research system while allowing universities to fail is a high-wire act of such delicate balance that it seems almost impossible to engineer the conditions to save the things the government would deem valuable.


To save research the government either needs to reduce research liabilities or more effectively protect researchers.

The Times piece mentions PhD students specifically and it is noticeable how few student protection plans mention research students at all. The OfS should surely take an interest in the protection of a group of students whose funding is so fragile.

In scanning an entirely unrepresentative sample of five protection plans for this article, one does not mention research students at all, one mentions that they would find a new internal supervisor, one mentions they would attempt to find a new external supervisor if possible, one mentions that the plan includes PGR students, and one says that protections should be discussed with supervisors. The strength of the protection plans do not match the strength of worries being expressed by DSIT.

The other option is to limit the cumulative liability for research which would make transfer easier. The Nurse review response did not answer the question of whether to pay 100 per cent FEC with fewer projects, reform QR and direct funding elsewhere, or leave the system as is. It’s hard to consider the flexibility of the research system without the firmness of knowing how it will be funded.

It is entirely sensible for the government to draw up an emergency regime for research. However, while there is still capacity to act it should consider the levers it already has to protect students and secure funding.

4 responses to “You can’t save research without saving universities

  1. “Officials in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology have drawn up contingency plans for universities in the event that they fail which would protect researchers and their research.” Shitehall’s redeployed Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport sport ‘science’ and media graduates with no clue about actual Science day-dreaming, again.

    The numbers don’t lie, Scientific, as against pseudo-science, Research is costly, very costly, buildings and labs, the supporting infrastructure and the specialist teams required to keep them running can cost millions. A building I know only too well cost ~£55M to construct, uses ~£1.5M+ in electricity a year and produces some very important technological advances, some that HMG has deployed ‘in-the-field’ to protect lives has saved far more than the whole edifice cost, yet that University is dependent on ‘overseas’ (CCP) money to keep the labs and teaching spaces open, along with the income from ‘useless (taught) degree’s’ that produce Costa barista graduates.

    Many post 1992 ‘Universities’ have diluted the ‘University educated’ brand, some are failing faster than older Universities, and we have a ‘real world skills’ and research funding shortage, how this may play out will come down to the Bliar intent of 50%+ attending, and being saddled with debt and a useless degree, continuing verses redefining a University enabled graduate skill set that only those bright enough to attend using stricter admissions criteria situation. Which unfortunately will favour those with wealth to back them and their earlier private education as against state school education where teaching to the lowest common denominator is now the norm. Something I saw and fought far too often without success as a school governor.

  2. It sort of feels like they want to allocate researchers to institutions in the way that doctors get their training placements. I can’t imagine many people wanting to be at the mercy of a centralized placement system, especially if they have roots in their local community — children in local schools, partners with local jobs. Even if every other aspect was perfectly managed, it just is not a smooth process to pick up and move house!

  3. As the author observes, researchers sometimes move (some of) their teams (and grants) when they move institutions. So the Department should develop rules, processes and funding to address the problems that commonly arise when researchers seek to move their projects between institutions.

    These might cover continued access to facilities, equipment, laboratories, collections and other resources used for the research, much of which may have been funded by the funding body.

    There might be provision for maintenance of continuity of employment, scholarships and PhD candidature at the new institution.

    There should be a process for deciding who owns intellectual property and who gets credit for grants and publications when projects are moved between institutions.

  4. There are different grades of failure.

    Many universities have financial problems which have forced them to make redundancies. A few have and will close departments and campuses.

    A larger scale financial failure in which a university is unable to make the monthly payroll or pay creditors and needs to call in an jnsolvency practitioner would only happen if it couldn’t persaude a single stakeholder (DfE, research council, local council, neighbouring university, bank) to make a short-term loan.

    If it helps to work through scenarios, in every case in the last 30 years where an FE college has run out of cash for the monthly payroll, there’s been an available short-term lender. Loans come with increasingly stringent conditions but have allowed time for the redundancies, department downsizing, campus closures, property fire sales and mergers needed to bring spending back within incoming cashflows.

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