Fees Subsidise Research in 'Unfunded' Social Sciences

Times Higher Education, June 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

Fees Subsidise Research in 'Unfunded' Social Sciences


Former LSE leader warns of problems as students' awareness of value increases. Holly Else reports

Tuition fees are the "major source" of funding for research at the London School of Economics because the institution concentrates on subjects that get relatively less money from government, the LSE's former interim director has said.

Dame Judith Rees said the LSE was having to rely "more and more" on tuition income to fund research, which caused a "dilemma" because students were increasingly scrutinising what they got in return for higher fees.

Speaking last week at the annual conference of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators, Dame Judith, co-director of the Grantham Research Institute at the LSE, estimated that about 40 per cent of social science and arts research in universities was effectively "unfunded" and subsidised by teaching income.

"Certainly in my institution, student fee cross-subsidies are the major source of research funding," she said, adding that the fact is not usually acknowledged.

She cited LSE research that indicated that more than 70 per cent of research council and quality-related funding goes into science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. "We are relying more and more on student fees [to fund research] and this might be a bit of a dilemma because students are now customers and so they are much more conscious about value for money," she suggested.

Dame Judith, who was interim director of the LSE from May 2011 to September 2012, also claimed that bonuses were sometimes being paid to academics in the UK if they got published in certain journals. She said she had heard of one example where an unnamed university department had paid £10,000 in bonuses.

She believed such payments were a symptom of the publish or perish trend currently rife in academia, although she put this down to the "academic mindset" rather than government policy or university bureaucracy. Blaming assessments such as the research excellence framework for such problems was a "gross oversimplification" as similar trends were occurring in other areas of the world where the REF does not exist, she explained.

"When colleagues moan about the REF and what is being imposed on them, I tell them that it is not the government or bureaucracy that is telling them what good research is...or [those] sitting on the appointment panels, [or] who referee journals and do the refereeing process for the research councils. It is academics," she asserted.

Dame Judith did not deny that the REF has "reinforced these market trends" and argued that there has been "tremendous pressure to conform".

Academics are under pressure to "become experts in a relatively narrow area", she added. The trend is born out of the idea that by being specialised an academic could rise to the top, and that applied or multidisciplinary work was less favourable, she explained. …

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