Scottish universities may face £21m research cut

Scottish universities may be forced to bear a £21 million research funding cut from the Scottish Government next year, it has emerged.

The surprise development was featured in an annual grant letter last week from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the public body responsible for allocating government funds to universities. According to the letter, £1.041 billion will be distributed to universities in the 2015-16 academic year, despite the Government’s designation of £1.062 billion in their January budget.

The missing £21 million has yet to be allocated, but has been held back for future use at the discretion of Holyrood ministers. It was originally designated to support the development of global research initiatives in Scotland.

If carried out, the cuts would effectively abolish the Global Excellence Fund, an initiative designed to recruit international talent and maintain worldwide standing of Scottish research institutions. Teaching grants and Research Excellence funds would also see cutbacks.

In a letter accompanying the budget figures, dated from November, outgoing Education Secretary Michael Russell said the decision would “provide flexibility to develop our plans for Post-16 education and training as a whole.”

But the revelations, first reported in The Herald, have sent waves of uncertainty throughout university campuses and provoked scathing responses from opposition politicians.

Iain Gray, education spokesman for Scottish Labour, was quick to label the move as a “stealth cut”, citing the calculated subtlety of its presentation.

Liam McArthur, education spokesman for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, called into question the intentions behind the action, describing the withheld grants as “a ministerial slush fund.”

University advocacy groups also expressed their concern.

Universities Scotland called the decision “challenging”. University and College Union (UCU) Scotland Official Mary Senior said the UCU was “disappointed.”

She told The Student: “Universities and the work they do—both teaching and research—need to be properly funded by the government.”

A common point of criticism centres on the timing of the decision. The research cuts come just two months after an impressive showing by Scottish universities in the Research Excellence Framework (REF), with the University of Edinburgh securing 4th place overall and seven other universities placing in the top 50 UK-wide.

One such institution was St Andrews, which garnered third place among Scottish universities last year and 14th overall.

Speaking to The Student, St Andrews Vice Principal of Research Derek Woollins expressed frustration with the budget cuts in light of the recent successes.

He said: “It’s very disappointing that following strong results across the sector the SFC should undermine all this hard work and achievement by reducing the amount of support.”

Considering a previous £100 million SFC investment into innovation centres for research, Woollins added, the cuts would jeopardise its long-term goals.

Other universities have responded more cautiously.

Officials at the University of Glasgow, which commanded a second place REF showing among Scottish universities, declined to comment, citing the lack of confirmation that the funds actually would be cut, and the resulting uncertainty.

University of Edinburgh Vice Principal of Research Policy Jonathan Seckl described the potential cuts as “painful.” But he also stressed the lack of conclusive information, given that the actual finalised figures are not expected for at least another month.

“If you know about where the money is in advance, you’d better tell me, because I would be very keen to hear,” he quipped to The Student.

He continued: “If [the funds] were to be cut, it would be uncomfortable, but at the moment we’re just working hard with government trying to see where we’re going with the funding council.”

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