I’ve recently spent a lot of time in orthopaedic wards and residential care homes after my mother fell and fractured her hip. Such places demonstrated to me only too clearly the misery caused by the ravages of time on the musculoskeletal system.
We are fortunate in having one of the world’sleading biomedical engineering research teams, led by Deputy Vice-Chancellor John Fisher, addressing precisely these issues. The work of this multidisciplinary group, and its potential impact on the quality of human life, is phenomenal, and has rightly been recognised by an £11m Wellcome Trust/Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council award, with colleagues from medicine, health, biological sciences and engineering collaborating with the city’s hospitals on replacement joints and new therapies for orthopaedic and cardiovascular diseases.
In the midst of a recession, with all the ensuing turbulence and uncertainty, it’s particularly pleasing – and significant – to see our research turnover (annual income) and new awards remain so buoyant. Although charity and industry grants are down, we’re enjoying our third year of significant growth in research income, forecast to be up 9.1% on last year. New awards are also up by 3% on last year (2007/8). These are tremendous results and they reflect the year’s singular achievement; our fantastic performance in the research assessment exercise (RAE).
RAE 2008 provided an external calibration for all our schools and faculties as they went into the annual planning round, providing them with a new baseline on which to set their direction and strategy right up to 2013, when the research excellence framework is currently scheduled to take place.
Although the exceptions are very significant concerns, the vast majority of our schools are in great shape; some are even coping admirably with significant losses in core research (QR) funding – most spectacularly geography, which has faced down an annual loss of £440,000 in QR funding by buoyant postgraduate recruitment and increasing the average research grant income for each academic from £27k to £67k over the last five years.
A small number of schools are not yet academically and financially sustainable for complex reasons, but among them are two that relate essentially to research; a relatively low percentage of staff returned in the RAE and/or research grant income falling shy of predicted targets. The shortfall in research grants is even more of an issue now that grants cover the ‘full economic cost’ of research activity. In the case of biological sciences, the RAE result means a c.£1m annual cut in core research (QR) funding, but losses caused by falls in grants look set to run at £3-4 million a year, hence the urgent need to protect the faculty’s future by containing costs and aligning income and expenditure.
I’m confident that all those in difficulty will come through, but the external landscape is extremely challenging. We are regularly challenged on the purpose and value of our universities; this is the most turbulent time for higher education since the early 1980s. Whatever the colour of the next government, we face unprecedented cuts in public sector expenditure. The gloomiest of predictions sees us losing upwards of £20m a year and while increases in student fees could, at least in theory, mitigate some of these losses, we have to prepare ourselves for tough times ahead by making our university as efficient as we can to avert the possibility of a full-blown crisis in which precipitate action will be our only option.
We’re in a new department with a new First Secretary to win over. Ever the optimist, perhaps, but I’m pleased that universities have been brought together with science, the research councils and with trade and industry under the Cabinet’s most influential member. As incoming chair of the Russell Group, I’ve already met Lord Mandelson – twice – and he’s as masterful as his reputation, displaying a good grasp of the important issues facing higher education and the determination, naturally enough, to make his mark.
His interest in – indeed his personal experience of – social mobility is well known: “Why should a shopkeeper’s daughter from Hartlepool not become a high court judge?” is one of his favourite phrases. So we can expect renewed interest in attainment, access, and in providing young people with the opportunity to achieve their potential – that is certainly something that resonates well with our strategy. His challenges and concerns range from student fees, the contribution made by (research intensive) universities to the economy, the enterprise and innovation agenda and the research excellence framework (REF), as well as broader issues of the UK’s international competitiveness and steering ourselves out of recession. Once convinced by our case, Lord Mandelson would be the best person possible to protect university funding; we have to give him the evidence and arguments to help him make the right decisions.