After Reid, where now for research and innovation in Welsh universities?

In Wales, there's a gap where a national research and development policy should be. Richard Wyn Jones goes looking for Reid

Richard Wyn Jones is Director of the Wales Governance Centre and Dean of Public Affairs at Cardiff University

The Welsh Government has finally pulled the plug on the 2018 Reid review.

Given the obfuscation that has characterised the Welsh Government’s treatment of the review’s recommendations in recent times, it is perhaps fitting that confirmation of the decision to abandon its previous commitment to their implementation came in a written answer rather than on the floor of the Senedd itself.

Asked by Welsh Conservative MS, Paul Davies, to confirm when it would “implement the full recommendations” of the review, Economy Minister Vaughan Gething made clear that the Welsh Government’s “priorities and focus have…evolved’, citing, in particular, the role of the Internal Market Act and the UK Shared Prosperity Fund in reducing ‘expected funding and related previous commitments”. As such, the Reid review should now be regarded as only “one source of evidence” informing the development of a “new cross-government Innovation Strategy”.

Another delay?

While the minister was at pains to point out that work on this new strategy is already “underway”, it is unlikely to be operational much before 2024. There is also a strong expectation among close observers that it will focus more on process – on how the Welsh Government organises its own innovation-related activities – than on substantive outcomes.

As things stand Wales’ devolved government no longer has a strategy for research and innovation in the country’s HEIs. Changes to the initial draft of the 2022-23 Welsh Budget boosting the amount of research (QR) spending will have brought some breathing space.

Nonetheless, the problems that Professor Graeme Reid and his colleagues were tasked with addressing remain. Wales consistently underperforms in attracting Research Council and Innovate UK spending, serving to cement the nation’s status as the UK nation or region with the lowest per capita level of R&D spending. Evidently, addressing this state of affairs is no longer considered a priority by the Welsh Government.

The Reid recommendations

The Reid review contained five central recommendations to the Welsh Government on how to support research and innovation in Welsh universities in the aftermath of Brexit and – note – in anticipation of the UK Government’s subsequent power grab with regards the replacement of those EU funds from which Welsh HEIs had previously benefited. They were:

  • Creation of a Welsh research office in London.
  • £71m per annum for QR, maintained in real terms.
  • £25m for a Welsh equivalent to HEIF (rising to £100m per annum in the event of Wales getting control of replacement EU funding.)
  • £35m Future of Wales Fund to reward those institutions who bring in UK-level cash.
  • £30m St David’s Fund for innovation competitions, hubs and government innovation.

Taking these recommendations in turn, the Welsh Government swiftly created a new office in London. Changes to the draft budget mean that QR funding is now set to rise to over £90m in the next financial year (which is some way above Reid’s target.) Wales now has a Research Wales Innovation Fund in lieu of the third recommendation, but even by the most generous interpretation there remains a shortfall of some £10m on what was planned for innovation funding. Meanwhile, the Future of Wales and St David’s Fund were never established and, indeed, have completely disappeared from sight.

Taking all the review’s recommendations into consideration (which included a much-needed £1m per annum for the Learned Society of Wales), the failure to implement the Reid package leaves an overall funding shortfall of some £53m per annum.

If you help me Reid

It remains unclear why the Welsh Government has chosen to resile from its commitment to Reid. As we have seen, despite various ministerial claims to the contrary, the review’s recommendations were drawn up in anticipation of the UK government’s squeeze on devolved funding and autonomy. The fact that the government was able to increase the QR allocation by £10m between 2021-22 and 2022-23 also suggests that financial pressures alone do not account for the change of heart.

Whatever the explanation, the Welsh Government has abandoned a strategy aimed at the long-term transformation of research and innovation landscape in Welsh HEIs without even attempting to implement key elements such as the Future of Wales Fund. A short-term boost for QR and vague suggestions that the government plans to work together with the (soon-to-be-abolished) HEFCW to “develop plans to support increased high quality bidding to UK Government and charitable sources of research and innovations funds” are hardly an adequate substitute.

Representing Welsh higher education

It is to be earnestly hoped that those responsible for higher education policy in Wales will eventually be asked to account more fully for the demise of the Reid strategy. But the same token, some hard questions also need to be asked to those charged with representing the sector. Not least because the fact that the Welsh Government has been able to renege on its previous commitments to implement the Reid recommendations without eliciting even the faintest whisper of protest or pushback has exposed a sector that would appear to be bereft of political influence or heft.

In fairness, representing Wales universities in no easy task given the disparate nature of these institutions. In particular, while research matters hugely to some, others have very different priorities. But it is also the case that Universities Wales – the Welsh arm of UUK – is now in receipt of substantial funds from Welsh Government reflecting its role in supporting various government initiatives. Even if Welsh universities had the same interests and priorities – which they don’t – it is clearly asking a great deal of Universities Wales to bite the hand that feeds.

A lack of influence

In this context, the fate of the Reid review raises two sets of questions. As far as the Welsh Government is concerned, we are entitled to ask what – concretely – is the vision for research and innovation in Wales’ higher education sector now that the previous strategy has been jettisoned without adequate explanation, let alone an alternative being in place?

For those working in Welsh universities, and in particular those working in institutions in which research remains a priority, the key question is surely who will speak for the sector? If Universities Wales will not or cannot do so – and with HEFCW now the lamest of lame ducks – the fate of Reid suggests that some other route to influence is urgently required if Wales is not to fall even further behind in this centrally important area of activity.

Richard Wyn Jones is Director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University but writes here in a personal capacity.

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