British Irish Chamber of Commerce - Eversheds Sutherland Expert Policy Series
University Funding (and Lack Of): A Tale of Two Cities
Thank you for the invitation to address you this morning:
I had the honour of taking up the role as President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol in 2015.
For those of you not familiar with the UK system, most universities are run by a Vice-Chancellor who is both the Chief Academic Officer and Chief Executive.
The Chancellor is a ceremonial role.
Our current Chancellor is the Nobel-winning scientist Paul Nurse.
It may be of interest that our Chancellor for my first three years was Baroness Hale of Richmond – now President of the UK Supreme Court.
What attracted me to Bristol?
First and foremost, the opportunity to lead a top-ranked research-intensive University – Bristol ranks in the world top 100 in all of the major international rankings and, indeed, in the top 50 in the prestigious QS ranking.
But also because Bristol is one of the UK’s top civic universities – deeply embedded in the life and economy of the region – in Bristol’s case sitting at the heart of one of the UK’s strongest high tech and digital economies – a point I’ll come back to later.
I looked forward to the opportunity of working in one of the world’s top higher education sectors in terms of funding, autonomy and outputs.
What I didn’t anticipate was that the UK would vote, shortly after I arrived, to leave the EU and the associated political and societal turmoil that followed.
Indeed, I didn’t even know that prorogue was a verb and I certainly didn’t know that it could be illegal!
Differing Responses of the UK and Ireland to the Financial Crash
I was invited this morning to reflect on the potential impact of Brexit on the UK and Irish higher education systems.
I will, however, extend my analysis back to the beginning of the global financial crisis as the political and policy responses in the UK and Ireland to these two seismic events – the crash and a looming Brexit – could not have been not been more different!
Relative to other sectors, the UK’s response to the global financial crisis– from a higher funding base than Ireland – was to steadfastly protect its higher education and research budgets.
Indeed, it went even further!
In 2012, the UK grasped the nettle of not only the quantum of funding required but also the balance between public and private funding of higher education through the introduction of a student loan system.
Ireland went in the exact opposite direction – major cuts in state funding per student; an unwillingness to grasp the nettle of tuition fees or loans to fill the gap; significant erosion of its research funding base; and significant shackling of university autonomy.
A Trend that has Continued as Brexit Looms!
These strikingly different approaches to university funding have continued since the Brexit referendum.
Ireland continues to sit on its hands – ignoring yet another in a long line of reports (the Cassells Report) calling for investment in higher education and, if what I read in the media is accurate, almost celebrating this inaction as if it is a sensible policy response.
The UK, in contrast, once again reaffirmed the centrality of skilled graduates, research and innovation to its economic strategy and acted accordingly.
It has committed approximately £5bn of new research funding – the majority being directed to support university-industry collaboration.
In parallel, it increased post-graduation work entitlements for international students and lifted the cap on visas for highly skilled workers.
And, it is actively looking at the structures and programmes that would be needed to fund international research collaboration should full association with the EU’s research ecosystem not materialise through a deal.
Interestingly, some of the biggest advocates for investment in higher education and research have been Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings!
Bristol as a Relevant Case-Study
I will use Bristol as a case study to bring these differences to life and compare the resources available to me with those available to my UCD and TCD counterparts.
But first a few words of background on Bristol and the UK university sector.
Bristol is a member of the Russell Group (RG) – a group of 24 of the UK’s top research-intensive universities.
The Group was formed in 1994 to co-operate on policy matters and is, for the most part, accepted by Government as an authoritative, evidence-based voice and partner.
All 24 are ranked in the top 200 in the QS world rankings and approximately half in the top 100.
With respect to the skills pipeline, the Group accounts for one third of all UK STEM graduates, almost 60% of PhD students and almost 80% of medical graduates.
The RG universities (RGUs) win almost 70% of competitive research funding in the UK and approximately the same % of UK funding from the EU.
RGUs support over 250,000 jobs in the UK; between 2010-16 their employees increased by 23% when the national employment rate increased by c5%; they are responsible for 60% of spin-outs surviving after three years; they work with 20,000 SMEs per year; and they contribute £86bn to the UK economy each year.
For every £1 of public research funding they secure, RGUs deliver an average return of £9 to the UK economy.
They are generally regarded as a force for good; vital economic powerhouses in their regions in terms of talent, research, innovation and absorption of new technologies; critical for the future success of the UK economy; and therefore worthy of investment and wider policy support.
Remember – Ireland used to compete successfully at this level
It is worth remembering that before the crash, UCD and Trinity were ranked in the world top 100 – going toe-to-toe with the Russell Group universities on the international stage.
Between 2000-2010, the Irish universities, for the first and only time, enjoyed investment in education and research that approximated that of top UK and European competitors.
Chuck Feeney’s landmark Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) transformed the infrastructure on Irish campuses.
The creation of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) introduced internationally competitive funding for high quality discovery and applied research.
These new funding streams sat alongside reasonably well-funded mission-oriented programmes funded through the Irish Research Council, the Health Research Board and Teagasc.
As a direct result of this investment, the Irish universities rocketed up the world rankings. UCD and TCD sat squarely in the middle of the Russell Group universities on most metrics; UCC and NUIG were not far behind; and DCU, Maynooth and UL were a match for any of the UK’s younger universities.
How times have changed!
Comparing Life in Bristol v Belfield or College Green
Against this background, let me use Bristol to bring to life the competition and challenge facing the Irish universities.
By a conservative estimate, Bristol probably receives at least 25% more funding per student than UCD or Trinity.
The same is true in research. The UK has a well-developed dual funding system. Every 5-7 years it runs a national Research Excellence Framework (formerly known as the Research Assessment Exercise). The REF is a rigorous assessment of research quality and impact in all major research areas in all universities. On the basis of the results, an institution receives an annual Quality-Related annual research grant for the period between REFs.
So, not only do I have at least 25% more funding from undergraduate tuition fees than Andrew Deeks and Paddy Prendergast, but I’ve also another €50m more research money to spend annually.
Bristol – a university equivalent in size to UCD and TCD – is c€100m better off before my colleagues even apply for their research grants.
But that’s not all! While the PRTLI programme in Ireland seems to have been consigned to history, I have a research infrastructure fund to play with – the so-called Research Partnership Investment Fund – which leverages £1 of public investment for every £2 of private money. This delivered £104m for Bristol this year for a new Digital Futures Institute.
And my Bristol academic colleagues can apply to 6 well-funded research councils for funding in the full range of humanities, social science, STEM and biomedical research, as well as to Innovate UK for closer to market research, and to the newly formed umbrella body UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) for large scale university-industry research.
Furthermore, they can apply to a number of very well-funded charities for even more research funding – most notably the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation and the Leverhulme Trust.
In short, the UK research system is well-funded, balanced in terms of the mix of blue skies and applied research; and, with the caaveat of Brexit, going from strength to strength.
Ireland, to its great credit, continued to fund SFI during and since the crash but its remit is now relatively narrow and applied by comparison to the UK, and most other research funding streams have been cut drastically.
The consequences of these differences in education and research funding are plain to see.
The Irish universities have high student:staff ratios, less small group teaching, ageing equipment, and digital and physical infrastructure that is crying out for investment.
Having been a magnet for top talent a decade ago, the word among international academics and Irish academics working abroad is that the Irish research environment is now significantly inferior to most major competitors.
Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Irish researchers to win prestigious international funding from bodies such as the European Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.
Let me give you one telling example. The most prestigious EU research grants are awarded by the European Research Council (ERC). Over recent times, the University of Bristol – a university similar in size to UCD and Trinity – secured more ERC grants than all of the Irish Universities put together!
The ERC is an international badge of excellence – it is unconscionable that Ireland has fallen so far!
The Provost of TCD made a similar point in a recent editorial. No doubt, he was accused in some quarters of being self-serving but he was absolutely right!
Indeed, it is to the great credit, ingenuity, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness of my former colleagues in the Irish universities that they have not fallen further down the rankings.
We should be in no doubt that they will plummet further if action is not taken. Despite superior resources, the UK universities are also slipping down the rankings – albeit at a much less dramatic rate – in large part because of relentless march of the Chinese and Asian universities.
Their governments absolutely understand the importance of a top quality education and research system to their nations’ economic futures and they are scaling up their ambition, investments and performance year after year.
How Will Brexit Affect the UK and Irish Universities?
The UK university system is quite heterogenous so I will limit most of my comments to the top tier Russell Group research-intensive universities.
Approximately 5% of RG undergraduates are non-UK EU students. Reassuringly, we have seen little impact here, in part, because the UK government has helpfully guaranteed their access to the student loan system for the duration of their courses.
If Brexit takes place, it may be problematic for some UK universities but it’s adverse effects may be tempered by a very significant demographic upsurge in UK school leavers beginning in 2021.
With regard to non-EU international students, the Brexit debate has had little effect, at least on the RG universities, and may even prove helpful!
Our recruitment staff in China and India report that, for most parents and prospective students, Brexit is but a trivial, amusing and poorly understood local squabble among former colonists. Furthermore, the fall in the value of sterling has made a top class UK education much more affordable to international students!
From the viewpoint of EU staff, the overwhelming majority of whom voted to remain, Brexit is deeply troubling. However, relatively few have left and we are still attracting superb applicants from the EU and across the globe to advertised posts.
The real worry for Bristol and the other RGUs lies in the area of research. To the credit of all concerned, the EU’s flagship research programmes such as Horizon 2020 and the European Research Council are viewed across Europe and across the world as being a huge success – funding research excellence and creating a frictionless and innovative transnational research ecosystem that has, for the first time, allowed Europe to compete with the US on a sustainable basis.
Among EU countries, the UK wins the most funding from these EU programmes. Indeed, it is one of the few areas where the UK wins back multiples of what it contributes – a fact not lost on the UK government.
If a deal is done, the hope is that the UK will negotiate full association with Horizon Europe – the successor of Horizon 2020 – by paying to play. This will, however, be a poor 2nd best to the current arrangement as it is highly unlikely that the remaining 27 countries will allow the UK to continue to win multiples of what it puts in.
The No Deal scenario is, of course, what we fear most and will undoubtedly lead to even more uncertainty and opportunity cost.
As a stop-gap the UK government has helpfully agreed to fully fund any awards that are interrupted in a no-deal scenario but this is merely a sticking plaster.
What about Ireland?
Given that the UK is Ireland’s most significant European research collaborator in terms of funding, publications and citations, I sincerely hope that Ireland works with the UK, deal or no deal, to ensure that there is alignment of funding programmes to promote collaborative research.
I’ve heard it said that Brexit offers a great opportunity to Ireland in terms of international student recruitment as Ireland will be the only English speaking country within the EU. Possibly!
But it should be remembered that the UK is taking mitigation steps to enhance its attractiveness to international students and top European universities in Holland and Scandinavia – many ranked significantly higher than the Irish universities – are now offering an ever-expanding menu of high quality undergraduate and postgraduate degrees taught solely through English.
I hear similar statements regarding research – that there is a huge opportunity for Irish universities to form partnerships with leading UK universities that will somehow give UK universities a backdoor into Horizon Europe.
Possibly! But when push comes to shove UK researchers are going to want to collaborate with Europe’s best and will find a way of doing so. This has certainly been the case in Bristol where our initial focus has been the establishment of a new partnership with the Max Planck in Germany in minimal biology.
Which takes me back to my central point, Ireland’s place in European higher education and research has suffered as a result of the past decade of cuts and lack of investment. It is simply not viewed as attractive a destination for top talent or collaboration as it was before the crash.
Ireland needs to take action now before it enters a vicious downward spiral
The state of Ireland’s higher education and research system should be viewed as a national crisis.
I understand fully some of the factors that conspired to create this crisis – the massive hit taken by the exchequer – the shackles applied by the Troika.
But the Troika is long gone, the economy has recovered, the ducking and diving has got to stop and the lost ground needs to be made up fast.
Top class higher education and research costs money. It is a deep pockets game. But it is absolutely key to Ireland’s economic future.
If Ireland doesn’t invest and, at the very least, man mark the opposition, what is Plan B for the future Irish economy after the relentless march of tax harmonisation has played out?
The reality is that Ireland has been plagued by lip service to the importance of higher education and research for over a decade.
In brings to mind Albert Einstein’s famous quote: “The road to perdition has ever been accompanied by lip service to an ideal”
I welcome Michael Martin’s recent proposal to establish a new Department of Higher Education and Research as an important signal of intent, provided, of course, that its Minister has equal status with others at the cabinet table. Perhaps ‘Confidence and Supply’ could work in reverse to make this happen sooner rather than later?
However, this may not be enough.
If it is viewed too politically difficult for any single party to make the necessary hard choices regarding investment in higher education and research, then why not ask the Citizens Assembly to consider the matter but with an all party commitment upfront to act on their recommendations? They have done the State some service recently with another complex issue and there is no reason they couldn’t do so again!
Finally, I should stress that it is not a choice between investment in Ireland’s universities and investment in its hospitals, schools or social services. These are false choices.
It is investment in Ireland’s universities today that will ultimately drive the economy that will deliver the taxes to pay for vital public services and infrastructure over future decades.
And would those who argue to the contrary, please set out Plan B to me and the wider public – we deserve to know – there is too much at stake!