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June 11th, 2021:

Cuts to Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) Funding – response from senior management

At the UCU JNC meeting on 11 May we tabled a paper outlining our concerns about the cuts to ODA funding and the implications on research staff employed at the University.  Our initial letter and the response from Mark Spearing, VP Research and Enterprise can be found below.

 

3 June 2021

Dear UCU Colleagues

Thank you for your queries on the effect on the University of Southampton of the Government’s decision to reduce significantly the overseas development assistance funding that was directed through UKRI funding schemes such as the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Newton Fund, and the University’s response.  This is a very difficult situation and is still very much under discussion.  We only received the notification of our proposed allocations at 4.25 pm on Friday 28th May, and it will take a few more days to understand what these proposals actually mean in practice, and we will be continuing to work closely with our lead investigators at the University of Southampton to minimize the damage caused; although given the scale of the cuts this will be challenging.  The interaction with UKRI up to this point has been to help them understand the likely effect of the proposed cuts on the individual projects and to make the case, wherever possible for additional funding.  Everyone involved is aware of the very difficult decisions that this involves, and the consequences for staff and students at the University of Southampton as well as on valued partners in low and middle income countries, where the effects of these cuts are likely to be even more severe than they are here in the UK.

In response to your questions, see below:

Questions:

  1. What effects did these cuts to ODA/GCRF-funded projects have on staff at Southampton? The cuts have not been implemented yet, and now that we have recently received notice of our proposed allocations, we will be working with the Southampton investigators to minimize the effect. The overall reduction for fiscal year 2021/22 is from £3.0M across ten projects to £1.8M, against the original UKRI proposal of a reduction to £1.0M.
  1. What attempts did the University make to prioritise the protection of jobs?  We have been making every attempt to protect jobs and people in this process. This will continue to be the focus as we work through the implications of the revised allocations that we have just received.
  2. What is the estimated number of fixed-term contracts that will have to end early because of these cuts? It is too early to make this estimate as the proposed final allocations have only just been issued.  Although we should stress the overall impact will not be as severe as originally feared, but this will vary by individual project.
  3. Did the UoS conduct an Equality Impact Assessment? If so when will this be published? Since we have only just received the proposed allocations it would be premature to do this. Each investigator, on each of the ten projects will need to assess the equality impact, but also, importantly the longer term impact on our partners in LMICs.
  4. Has the University taken any steps to challenge these cuts? Why has there been no public discussion / leadership on this? We have been working very actively through our representative groups, particularly the Russell Group, and with our partners to challenge these cuts.  There has been considerable public debate on the matter, and Prof. Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Oxford, spoke eloquently on the matter on behalf of the Russell Group on the Radio 4 Today programme, shortly after the initial announcement was made.  In my capacity as Vice-President for Research and Enterprise, I spoke directly to the Chief Executive of UKRI on the matter, on 25th March 2021,  to convey our collective dismay at the decision to make these cuts.  Along with the interventions of many others this has resulted in a significantly improved settlement from that which was originally proposed.   It is also important to note that at the same time there were also threats to the budget for the UK’s association in Horizon Europe, which is about six times the budget for ODA research, both nationally and for the University. It is a great relief that this budget seems to have been satisfactorily agreed.

Thank you for your suggestions of actions to take. See comments below.

  • More open consultation and discussion would have been helpful in the early stages. For example, it would have been useful for senior management to reach out to all PIs to discuss options early on in the process so that they could understand possible options and decide on priorities. I wrote, by email, twice, personally to every UoS PI.  Once when the overall scale of the cut was announced and a second time when the specific proposals for individual projects were known. The great majority responded directly, thanking me for making the effort to engage with them directly.  I spoke to several investigators via Teams following the second of these emails, at their request.  I have worked closely with the Associate Deans Research throughout, who have been liaising on a very close basis with the investigators. I am under no illusions as to how difficult this has been for all involved.  It is an unprecedented move by government and UKRI.
  • Communications could be clearer, and more compassionate, recognising the stress and uncertainty these staff are facing. In some communications it was announced that the University would support them, but it was not clear what this support would look like. I very much recognise this.  In all our communications we have aimed to make clear that we understand the levels of stress and uncertainty that this situation has caused.  We have tried to provide the greatest reassurance that we have been able to support, but given the uncertainties that still exist regarding the situation, we have been limited in terms of the assurance that can be provided.
  • The decision to not allow moving budgets between DA and DI was seen as extremely disappointing, especially as many other institutions have allowed this. Moving money from DA to DI could have saved some fixed term contracts for the upcoming year.

Unfortunately, this is not true.  It just shifts the problem from one part of the University to another.  Given the overall University financial situation and the additional costs incurred due to Covid mitigation, and a reduction in other income streams due to reduction in halls of residence revenues and international student fees, we are quite constrained in the actions we have been able to take.  We have applied some underspend on GCRF QR funding to the projects that have been particularly badly affected by the cuts, which has helped to mitigate their effect.  In talking to colleagues at our peer institutions the great majority have found themselves in a similar situation to us.

  • Finance needed to be better prepared to engage with PIs quickly. Some reported that finance were unable to meet with them until very close to the deadline, this caused a lot of additional anxiety and uncertainty.

I am aware that the initial response was requested very quickly by UKRI, with notification being issued in late March and a response being required by 17th April, with the Easter closure period constraining the time available to respond.  I understand the difficulties that this caused, but the timescale was not of our choosing and I know that colleagues in Finance were working very hard, with ADRs and colleagues in Research and Innovation Services to provide as accurate and timely a response as possible.

  • University management could have taken a proactive stance at contacting external partners to explain the situation, rather than leaving this responsibility to PIs.

We did discuss this, at an early stage, but felt that we needed to be guided by the PI’s who understood best the detail of the relationships.  Where they have guided us, we have followed up with higher level communications.  As a result of a meeting with the CEO of UKRI a cover letter was also provided from that organisation to explain the situation to our partners.

  • Reassure and ensure that these cuts do not have an impact on career trajectories: how will this time-consuming and demoralizing process be taken into account in future appraisals?

The effect of this, and many other extraordinary circumstances that have occurred over the past year, will very much be part of appraisal conversations over the coming year and beyond.  This is very much the point of having annual appraisals; they have a vital role in allowing the individual to articulate difficulties encountered and to reset expectations for the future.  We are also working to ensure that as the ERE promotion process resumes, that we make full and fair use of the existing provision for candidates to declare their particular circumstances and ensure that these are taken into account in promotion decisions.

I very much hope that the responses provided above address your concerns. I will be able to give a further report once we have worked through the consequences of the proposed settlement that UKRI informed us of last Friday.

In the meantime, should you wish to discuss further, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Yours faithfully

Mark Spearing

Vice-President, Research and Enterprise