More funding, but less research

18 March 2022

Having a billion SEK tucked away in an account may seem like a safe move – but to a university, it poses a challenge. The final accounts of 2021 show that Umeå University belongs to the group of higher education institutions whose agency capital is so large that we must reflect on the impacts it has on research and education.

Agency capital is the financial surplus that arises when the government agency does not spend the money they set out to spend. Some of the surplus comes from direct government funding not spent, but it can also be excess funds from a grant or fee-funded operation.

Dieter Müller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor.

Photo: Mattias Pettersson

This is the first time Umeå University's agency capital exceeds SEK 1 billion. That's an enormous sum. It doesn't come as a surprise, though. The agency capital has been building up over several years of repeated surplus of, not seldom, over SEK 100 million per year. In the last two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our possibilities to conduct research, and to recruit, which could be one explanation, but the problem is much older than that.

The idea of the annual direct government funding is for money to be spent immediately and be transformed into high-quality education and research. I must say that Umeå University, just like many other Swedish higher education institutions, has failed to deliver on that idea. Naturally, that has consequences on both education and research.

For now, I wish to focus particularly on research, for which a high agency capital simply means lost opportunities. Instead of transforming money into the building of knowledge and innovation, funding stays unused in various university accounts. These funds could instead have been utilised for the employment of new doctoral students or additional research time.

According to the Swedish Research Council's latest Swedish Research Barometer, Umeå University is dropping positions nationally when it comes to research. Not a whole lot of imagination is needed to suspect a link to the increased agency capital. The price of having too much money in the bank is a reduced volume of research output and publications, which in time will threaten Umeå University's position as a prominent research university.

So, what can be done? The University Management has initiated an investment of over SEK 300 million funded by agency capital, which among other things will lead to new appointments, an Arctic graduate school focusing on sustainable development, and infrastructure improvements. Nevertheless, a majority of our resources is placed at various departments, individual researchers or research groups. I often hear that upcoming expenditures are planned. And sure, some of the increase in agency capital can be explained by delays in recruitments, for instance. But this is no new phenomenon.

In my mind, one part of the problem is that money is dispersed throughout the organisation. We're not seeing the whole picture and the opportunities that funding could lead to – by collaborating between researchers or research groups and, why not, between departments. If you ask me, I think we all have a mutual responsibility to achieve such collaborations, to transform university resources to relevant and recognised research and activities.

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