Comments of the Biochemical Society on Funding Method for Teaching and Funding Method for Research

During July 1996 HEFCE published the discussion papers Funding Method for Teaching and Funding Method for Research. These papers can be found on WWW at:
http://back.niss.ac.uk/education/hefce/pub96/cp1_96.html and
http://back.niss.ac.uk/education/hefce/pub96/cp2_96.html
The Biochemical Society submitted the comments below on the two papers to HEFCE.


Comments on Funding Method for Teaching

The Biochemical Society thanks HEFCE for its invitation to comment on this consultation paper. In general terms, in view of the costs to institutions of any change in the funding system, and of the imminent outcome of the Dearing inquiry into Higher Education, the Society considers that HEFCE should make no drastic changes to funding methodology at this time.

As was stated in the earlier response to the Coopers and Lybrand paper on this topic, the Society's over-riding concerns are that any changes to the method of funding should contribute to improving the standards of biochemical training, and encourage and reward quality in teaching and learning in different institutions. For this reason, the Biochemical Society is particularly concerned that the proposal to converge funding between institutions to an average rate of standard resource could be used as a means of reducing the overall volume of funding, could reduce the quality of provision in some currently excellent teaching institutions, and could reduce diversity of provision.

The following comments are lettered according to paragraph 67 in the consultation paper.

a) Views on the four price groups proposed

The Society is concerned that with significant differences in costs across the spectrum of subjects falling within the category 'laboratory-based courses', biochemistry, which requires both expensive equipment and expensive reagents, will be under-funded. It is essential that the high cost of delivering biochemistry courses is appreciated at both funding body and institutional level.

b) Views on institutional and student factors to which weights will be applied

Whilst supporting the factors listed in the paper the Society would urge that a quality related factor also be introduced, both to reward excellence in teaching and to enhance the status of teaching in higher education. The method of assessing quality would have to be strong enough to attract widespread support in all subjects and would need to take into account the quality of student intake, the objectives of the teaching, and the value added to the student.

c) Views on the proposal that institutions should report FTEs in each price group based on a unit system defined by the Council

A potential disadvantage of this concept for a subject such as biochemistry, that is very expensive to deliver and has high infrastructure costs, is that it would discourage the provision of modular courses containing less-expensive subjects outside the laboratory-based group, because of the effect on funding income. Reduced diversity of courses would not be beneficial.

d) Views on the proposal that funding of institutions should be within a band (suggested( 5%) of the amount that they would receive under the standard rates of resource

Whilst it is difficult to argue against the justice of such a system the Society nevertheless considers that it is over-simplistic and may lead to an unacceptable decrease in standards at some excellent institutions. The harmful low unit of resource that resulted in some institutions from a deliberate policy of recruiting fees-only students would be allowed to influence funding of more prudent institutions. Furthermore, senior members of the Society who were consulted could not predict what would be the effect of standard funding on their own Departments because they did not know what the rate would be. Before considering introducing such a policy HEFCE should perform studies to assess its impact across the HE sector. A better option would be to determine from consultation what would be a realistic standard rate for particular courses.

A further problem lies in identifying 'similar' activities. For instance, the Biochemical Society has recommended to the Dearing Inquiry that a family of undergraduate biochemistry courses should be introduced of between two and four years duration, with the fourth year being practical-intensive. For those institutions running it, this year would be considerably more expensive to deliver than the earlier years.

The Society stands by its earlier view that the way forward is to evaluate the provision of individual institutions in relation to their current funding levels rather than driving all towards averaged rates. There is no doubt that there is a genuine difference in depth of provision in biochemistry teaching between institutions. It is not realistic or efficient to expect all institutions to provide the same level and type of teaching and same extent of laboratory instruction, which would in any case reduce the diversity of provision. There needs to be a system whereby the objectives of teaching in different institutions are clearly defined and agreed, so that it can be assessed rationally whether or not an institution's course funding is realistic and provides value for money. This would also provide assessors with standards by which to judge the quality of teaching in that institution.

f) Views on the proposal that any efficiency gain should be applied equally

It is now generally accepted that the HE sector has been squeezed to such an extent in recent years that further efficiency gain is not possible. HEFCE is therefore referring to funding cuts. The Society would consider it fairer that these should be applied equally across all institutions rather than penalising institutions with higher AUCF.

g) Views on the proposal that the distribution of additional student numbers should be based on bids

The Society supports this suggestion.

h) Views on the bases for distributing additional numbers

Quality and student demand should be the main factors. Quality assessment should be at subject level, measuring the value added to the student entrant, rather than at institutional level. The Society appreciates the difficulties in selecting criteria of student demand commented upon in the discussion paper. Demand for HE can be for social reasons, but also needs to be influenced by market need, and comes from a broad spectrum of prospective students with a wide range of abilities. The Society therefore supports the Council proposal that student demand, however assessed, should be a factor for panels to take into account rather than being used in a formulaic way. National need should not be a major consideration since this can be volatile and opinions changed frequently. However, in relation to the biological sciences the pharmaceutical industry has advised the Society of a shortage of technically trained graduates, which would emphasise the need for policy to encourage more institutions to offer vocational courses and more students to pursue them. The Society would be wary of placing too much focus on local needs since this could be a device to persuade students to live at home, which is not necessarily in their best interests.

i) Views on whether capital funding should be incorporated into recurrent funds

This appears desirable to the Society in allowing institutions flexibility in the allocation of total funding. It would be important that the merging of the two funding streams was not seen as a means of reducing the combined totals currently available. There should be some flexibility in the distribution of T and R components of formula capital funding. A guideline of 75:25 would be recommended, with institutions having to justify significant deviations from that ratio. Finally, a floor provision element should be retained in the modified funding scheme to protect small institutions.

Comments on Funding Method for Research

The Biochemical Society thanks HEFCE for its invitation to comment on this consultation paper. In general terms, in view of the costs to institutions of any change in the funding system, and of the imminent outcome of the Dearing inquiry into Higher Education, the Society considers that HEFCE should make no drastic changes to funding methodology at this time. The following are the Society's views on particular points raised in the paper.

Paragraph 56: For QR, the method for setting quanta

b) The proposal for three cost weight bands

The Biochemical Society supports the proposal to simplify the cost bands since the earlier bands were based on historic analysis that has subsequently been distorted by the dual support transfer. The spread of cost weights to be allowed within each band is important. The Society would be concerned that with significant differences in costs across the spectrum of subjects falling within the category 'laboratory-based courses', biochemistry, which requires both expensive equipment and expensive reagents, could be underfunded. It is essential that the high cost of research in the molecular life sciences is appreciated at both funding body and institutional level.

c) The volume indicator

The Society supports the volume measures proposed in paragraph 39a, but urges that essential support staff on permanent contracts should also be included as a volume indicator. Such staff currently have to be supported through the 'infrastructure costs' portion of research council grants. The fixed term nature of such grants makes it difficult for Departments to plan for continuity. This is especially important where major facilities such as those for electron microscopy, gene sequencing and other analyses, are employed. Such facilities require highly trained dedicated technical staff, who may be funded from small percentages on a number of grants. Furthermore, funding by charities, that is becoming increasingly important for many Departments, often specifically excludes supporting technical staff, whose funding is considered to be provided by the 'well-founded laboratory'.

d) Inclusion of a policy factor

The Society considers that there is no justification for differential funding on grounds of central policy or national interest. Many other funding bodies, including industry, research councils, government departments, and public agencies already prioritise disciplines for research funding on the basis of the extent to which their support is essential for fulfilling policy objectives. The core QR funding from HEFCE does not need to duplicate such policy weightings. HEFCE should look to support the research base widely, in order to provide long-term opportunities.

Paragraph 57: Selectivity

a) Degree of selectivity

The Society considers that the present formula is satisfactory and that there should be no greater selectivity in core research funding. However, in view of the changes in the 1996 RAE scale it is not possible to define what modified funding formula would lead to an outcome equal in selectivity to the present system, and the Society would welcome clarification from HEFCE on this point.

Paragraph 58: For QR, the method for distributing quanta

a) Volume measures

See Paragraph 56c for comments on the need for a satisfactory way of funding essential technical support.

b) Whether or not volume measures should also include charitable income

Charitable income should be included in the volume measure. As discussed in paragraph 37 of the paper, it is the only way at present for Departments to obtain some kind of 'overhead' in relation to charity grants which otherwise pay only direct costs.

c) Should minor volume factors be updated annually?

It would appear rational to update volume measures annually to reflect changes in the sector. The Biochemical Society would support the proposal to keep the proportion of QR attributable to each of the volume measures broadly static by setting the weights attached to different volume measures annually.

e) Successor to DevR

The Society considers it essential that a pool of funding continues to be available to encourage small centres of research excellence in institutions that have previously received only limited funding for research. The method of funding should encourage collaboration between such small groups to create groupings better equipped to perform innovative research and compete for grants. In allocating funding HEFCE panels should take into consideration both improved ratings in the 1996 RAE and ability to attract contract income, using both in a non-formulaic manner. Senior members of the Society who are located in such research groups urged against using the latter factor in isolation since rewarding only applied research would drive these groups towards industrial support and away from research council and charity grants.

Paragraph 59: Formula capital funding

a) Should it be incorporated into current funds?

This appears desirable to the Society in allowing institutions flexibility in the allocation of total funding. It would be important that the merging of the two funding streams was not seen as a means of reducing the combined totals currently available. There should be some flexibility in the distribution of T and R components of formula capital funding. A guideline of 75:25 would be recommended, with institutions having to justify significant deviations from that ratio. A floor provision element should be retained in the modified funding scheme to protect small institutions.


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