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Research in Public HEIs

As has been mentioned above, English HEIs are not public institutions in the same way as many of their continental counterparts. The complicated relationship between the public and the private in English HEIs has become even more difficult with English policy on HEIs increasingly leaning towards commercialisation, internationalisation, business style administration in governance and the encouragement of financial independence in recent years.[1]

Research as a Statutory Task of HEIs

The law governing HEIs in England is to be found within a vast variety of sources,[2] though it is planned to partly consolidate this with Higher Education and Research Act 2016 currently debated in parliament. Most important among the present legislation are the Education Reform Act 1988 (ERA), the FHEA, the

Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, the Higher Education Act 2004 and the Education Act 2011 which changed/amended some of the earlier Acts.[3] ERA states in s 124 that ‘a higher education corporation shall have the power [...] to carry out research and to publish the results of the research’. FHEA states in s 65 that

activities eligible for funding [...] [by HEFCE] are (a) the provision of education and the undertaking of research by higher education institutions in the council’s area, (b) the provision of any facilities, and the carrying on of any other activities [...] for the purpose of or in connection with education or research, [...] (d) the provision by any person of services for the purposes of, or in connection with, the provision of education or the undertaking of research.

Research thus appears to be an activity which HEIs may carry out and receive funding for, but not a statutorily required task. Indeed, conducting of research does not appear to be part of the definition of a public HEI or even of a university.[4]

According to s 68(1) FHEA the ‘Secretary of State may make grants to [...] [HEFCE] of such amounts and subject to such terms and conditions as he may determine’. HEFCE then, if applicable, passes the latter on to HEIs and can attach its own terms and conditions (s 65(3) FHEA).[5] However, s 68(3) provides that the terms and conditions imposed upon HEFCE by the Secretary of State ‘may not be framed by reference to particular courses of study or programmes of research (including the contents of such courses or programmes and the manner in which they are taught, supervised or assessed)’. Furthermore, s 202(2) ERA requires University Commissioners ‘to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges’. These provisions seem to limit external steering of research in favour of academic freedom. In the planned legislation the government intends to establish UKRI ‘in a way which [,..][the government] consider[s] offers the best balance between scientific and academic independence and accountability to Parliament’.[6] This seems to refer mainly to s 93(2)(a) where it is established that directions ‘may not be framed by reference to [...] programmes of research (including the contents [these] [...] programmes and the manner in which they are [...] supervised or assessed)’. Quantitative restrictions of research do not seem to exist by statute.

There are three main research funding streams for English HEIs; they receive generic funding from HEFCE, project/programme related funding from research councils and funding from other sources. The first two are public funding streams and known as the ‘dual support system’.[7] They comprise the majority of research funding for HEIs.[8] Funding allocation through the dual support system contains competitive elements tending to concentrate funding in a small number of institutions. While this seems to have improved the competitiveness of UK HEIs, it has also been criticised for potentially overlooking high quality research in those HEIs which are not generally regarded as research intensive institutions.[9] Funding from outside the dual support system is also increasingly gaining in importance. It comprises additional competitive public as well as private, third sector and international (currently still especially EU) funding.[10]

  • [1] Zoontjes 2010, p. 123 seq; Farrington and Palfreyman 2012, para 1.01 seq, 3.01, 4.01 seq;Kelly et al. 2014, pp. 3, 7 seq, 11.
  • [2] For an overview see Farrington and Palfreyman 2012, para 1.04.
  • [3] The policy changes prior to the planned Higher Education and Research Act, have not beenintroduced by a comprehensive act, but by executive measures only (OFT 2014, p. 61 seq).
  • [4] See on these definitions Farrington and Palfreyman 2012, para 3.01 seq, 3.05 seq.
  • [5] On the powers of the government and HEFCE see further Farrington and Palfreyman 2012,para 4.16 seq.
  • [6] BIS 2016, p. 17. However, it has been questioned if the new Anti-Lobbying Rule prohibitingthe use of public money for lobbying the government may provide a threat for academic freedom(Scott 2016 Academics’ ability to lobby government under threat from new funding clause.The Conversation, 25 February 2016 Accessed 11 March 2016).
  • [7] Even with the merging of the research councils and HEFCE in the planned Higher Educationand Research Bill it is envisioned to keep the dual support system (BIS 2016, 67).
  • [8] Higher education funding council funding and research council funding amount to 56.9 % ofall research funding for HEIs in the UK. Office for National Statistics 2016, Table 1.
  • [9] Adams and Gurney 2010, p. 1 seq; UCU 2014, p. 8; Stern 2016, p. 25.
  • [10] See on the funding streams Adams and Gurney 2010, p. 1; Candemir and Meyer 2010, p. 509;Farrington and Palfreyman 2012, para 1.01; Kelly et al. 2014, p. 8 seq; UCU 2014, p. 6; Nurse2015, p. 3.
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