David Sweeney, Director of Research, Innovation and Skills, Higher Education Funding Council for England


David Sweeney, Director of Research, Innovation and Skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England discusses the UK’s higher education sector, bringing innovation to research through funding and the introduction of the Research Excellence Framework


As Director of Research, Innovation and Skills, what are your primary tasks? What led to your appointment?

I am responsible for research funding, research assessment, knowledge exchange and skills. I also look after our project-based Catalyst Fund and Research Partnership Investment Fund. Previously, I worked in a university with responsibility for the same areas for which I am now responsible at the national level. Over the last five years in my role as Director, I have worked on strategically important and vulnerable subjects, our response to the global financial crisis and the Browne report.

Could you briefly explain the role that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) performs within higher education in England?

HEFCE funds teaching, research and knowledge exchange at universities and colleges in England; we also allocate funds for buildings and equipment (capital funding). In 2013-14 we will allocate around £4.5 billion to 129 higher education institutions (HEIs) and to 202 further education colleges (FECs) that provide higher education courses. We also play a key role in monitoring financial sustainability and health in universities and colleges.

Our role in the funding of teaching is changing as the new system of upfront tuition fee loans comes in. Since September 2012, HEFCE funding has increasingly focused on areas where tuition fees alone may be insufficient to meet full costs: high-cost subjects (such as medicine); postgraduate provision; supporting student opportunity for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, or who may need additional support to succeed; and high-cost distinctive study at (often specialist) institutions.

For research, our funding forms one side of the UK Government’s ‘dual-support’ system. We aim to ensure that universities have the capacity to undertake high-quality innovative studies and to contribute to supporting the research infrastructure. We do not specify how these funds are spent: each university decides how to allocate the money, such as on salaries for permanent academic staff, premises, libraries and central computing. HEFCE supports fundamental and blue sky research in institutions, and contributes to the cost of training new researchers. The seven UK Research Councils offer financial support for specific programmes and projects.

Our knowledge exchange funding helps to support and develop a broad range of activities in HEIs. The aim is to strengthen links with businesses, public services, communities and the wider public in order to increase the economic and social benefit. The funding provides incentives for, and supports, HEIs to work with the aforementioned sectors, with a view to exchanging knowledge and thereby improving products, goods and services.

We don’t just allocate funding; we ensure effective financial stewardship of our funds to maintain the confidence of Parliament, students and the public, and we encourage and support the positive contribution that higher education makes to the economy and society. We also monitor universities and colleges to ensure their courses are good quality, and that everyone with the potential to enter higher education has a fair chance to do so. We are legally responsible for ensuring that the quality of teaching is assessed in the higher education provision we fund. We do this by contracting the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) to devise and apply ways of guaranteeing the maintenance of academic standards and assuring the quality of teaching and academic support.

This is an excerpt from a longer discussion published in International Innovation. To access the interview in full, go to: http://www.research-europe.com/magazine/HEALTHCARE2/EX16/index.html