Featured post

Gender in the Merovingian World

Friday, 19 December 2014

The State We're In, Part 3.b: Two Billion Pounds!!!

In my post yesterday I said that the government had slashed funding for research in UK HE to 'more or less zero'.  "But, hold on there, Grumpy", you might say, "I read in the papers that the money awarded to UKHE from the REF is two billion pounds per an. - two Billion POUNDS - two thousand million pounds!  How do you call that more or less zero?"  To which I say, yup, it's a fair cop.  Two billion pounds is an unimaginable amount of cash to you or me, readers.  In fact, it's shitloads.  Why, even the highest paid man in the UK would take nearly 23 years to earn that much.


Hang on...


So what we're saying is that one person could earn in twenty three years what the entire nation is willing to spend per an on the higher educational research activity of over fifty thousand academics (see below) across the entire country. (Actually, given that that salary is two years old, he probably earns more now so it'd take less time.) Let's reflect on that for a moment.  Put another way, assuming there are other people earning that sort of amount, or even slightly less, five of them would earn the same, over the next five years, as the entire nation is going to spend (per an) on higher educational research.  Or we can look at it another way. Any one of the twenty-five richest people (or people 'and family' - tax dodge) in the UK (as of May this year) could dip into their fortune and pay for the whole country's annual higher education research bill, and still leave themselves with a fortune of between 1.43 and 9.9 billion pounds. 1.43 billion quid, by the way, is 53.9 times the average wage in the UK.  In other words the average UK wage-earner would take nearly 54 years to accumulate that amount of money, and even that would assume that s/he was able to save up 100% of their salary!  As yet another abstract formulationA 10% levy on the estates of only the *twenty-five* wealthiest people in the UK (leaving them only with fortunes of between £3bn and nearly £11bn...) would yield £17.1 billion, a sum that would match the government's spending on the research activities of over 54,000 UK academics for the next eight years.   I'm just sayin'.  But let's reflect on that a little.  That tells us quite a lot, doesn't it, about wealth difference and the economic priorities of neo-liberal capitalist economics.  Is that the sort of country we really want to live in?

Anyway, let's leave that to one side for now.  Two billion quid goes to universities to pay for research.  That still can't be bad.  How does that work out?  By my reckoning, there were 54,893 academics entered into the REF.  I don't think that one researcher could be entered into more than one panel but even if they could it would be a minority.  Let's round the number down to 50,000 to be on the safe side.  £2,000,000,000 divided by 50,000 works out at £40,000 each.  That sounds OK.  At first.  But £2,000,000,000 per an won't even cover the wage bill of the academics submitted (even at 2011 rates).  Of course, academics are not only paid to research, but to teach and administer too.  The common formula for research active staff in older universities at least is 40% time on research, 60% on teaching and admin. At that rate, then, the 2 billion will cover the relevant wage bill of the full time researching academics.   But we also have to factor in the wages of fairly numerous essential lab staff in the science departments, as well research librarians and research assistants in arts, humanities and social sciences, administrative support staff and the temporary lecturing staff bought in to cover for full-time staff on research leave.  That means that the budget is unlikely to contribute even one penny to the cost of research equipment, or 'plant costs' (maintenance of buildings, electricity, etc.), which in science departments are understandably astronomical.  Even cheap humanities departments require annual library and computing budgets to maintain any kind of research viability.  All of that now has to be financed from other sources.  That means student fees to a large extent, but even then £9k per an is not far above the cost price of a university education (including teaching resources which admittedly can sometimes double for research) leaving very little for research.  Well, fair enough, you might say, if you buy into the US-style neo-liberal propaganda, why should I pay, through my taxes for someone else's university education?  Why? Because culture, civilisation ('m not even going to be drawn into the economic benefits etc).

All this is one reason that everything has begun to turn on research grant income, at the expense of research quality, the thing that drove ICL's Professor Grimm evidently to take his own life (on that subject I can recommend nothing better than this post by the Plashing Vole).

I am also assuming, in all the above, that the money would be divided equally.  But obviously the point of the REF is that it isn't.  It is moderated to some degree by a department's place in the league. Therefore, for every person or department whose research is only adequately funded, let alone those few whose budget is enlarged, there is another department, or someone else, who is correspondingly underfunded, whose institution is no longer able to pay for them to research.  This may drive those people out of the profession, force them to teach more and research less or even force them onto teaching only contracts with no time to research at all (and while we are on that subject, you can't say, that's OK - academics should spend their time teaching the paying student: if you want to teach someone how to be, say, a historian you have to be a practising historian), force them out of the country to work elsewhere, force departmental closures, and so on.  All this seriously diminishes UK culture.

Let's look at it a third way. As of 12 September 2011, the UK had spent £123.9 bn on the bank bailout (but had planned on spending - and been exposed to the risk of spending - one and a half trillion pounds (£1,500,000,000,000).  By comparison, then, the bankers received what, at current rates (assuming our £2bn is an annual budget), the UK would be willing to pay for all of higher academic research for the next sixty-two years.  As I have said, £2 bn does not cover the cost of research.  Let's assume that the actual cost of UK academic research is three times that.  It still means we have spent on the bank bail-out enough to cover two decades of top-level research in all disciplines right across the UK (and stood ready to shell out the equivalent of full funding all university research in the UK for, at current rates, over two centuries...).  And one might want to ask what would be a better use of the money: bailing out irresponsible unregulated money-launderers who hold the country to ransom (we allegedly can't touch them because they'd all leave and now - post Thatcher - our entire economy is supposed to be dependent upon the financial wild west that the City has become), or people who work hard to improve, in all sorts of ways, the quality of life (leaving aside the economy etc etc) of the nation.  Well, you decide.  Maybe tell your MP...

But either way, two billion quid is really not a lot for what the nation as a whole gets back.  You have to ask whether, as a reward, it is worth the financial and cultural costs (not to mention the stress, the suicide) that come with the REF.