Last week I predicted that the Innovation & Research Strategy would in no way be a radical document that questioned the underlying principles of research or research funding. Despite some optimistic thinking in some quarters of the sector, today we can see that the Government’s appetite for constant revolution is starting to wane. This strategy has instead provided them with an opportunity to reinforce what’s already working and look ahead – albeit only to the end of this Parliament.
The strategy document itself is in the proscribed style for all such government documents these days. It’s long, it’s nebulous and it can sometimes read more like a laundry list than a truly coherent strategy document. Peter Mandelson would have published two or perhaps even three separate documents where this government prefers just one.
Weighing in at a hefty 101 pages, this tome will need more than a cursory analysis. But for higher education, here are some of the key things that jump out:
-A wholly expected and very strong push towards collaboration and consortia. A new framework will be developed for the ‘treatment and submission of multi-institutional funding bids’. Similarly, global collaboration is firmly on the agenda as the strategy recognises all this activity in the context of the rest of what happens in the rest of the world. If one good thing has come out of the downturn, it’s that there’s a lot of people that have been forced to take their heads out of the sand and begin to learn lessons from other countries that have a lot of experience in these areas.
– Launch of a new innovation voucher scheme aimed at SMEs that have not previously been engaged with universities. People seemed to like innovation vouchers so this can’t hurt. Not until 2012-13 though.
– Sir Tim Wilson’s review in to business/university links will have some more detail about implementation of the vouchers, but I can’t help feeling that between this strategy and the Autumn Statement, Sir Tim’s thunder is being slowly taken away. But we’ll have more information when that review is published in February.
– An Open Data Institute will be launched next year somewhere close to the Silicon Roundabout. Capturing the moment in East London may seem opportunistic, but there’s a lot of good work to be achieved in the open innovation agenda and now £10 million over 5 years to back it up. MUCH more detail next year and even a White Paper in the Spring. There’s also strong support for IP reform a la Hargreaves.
– The research funding paradigm of funding excellence is here to stay with a strong commitment shown towards that, the REF, the dual support system and a balance between fundamental and user-led research. This is all basic bread and butter stuff for the Government and was never at risk. Likewise, rumours of Lord Haldane’s modern-day demise were greatly exaggerated. His legacy lives to fight another day.
– Technology and Innovation Centres are to be rebranded as ‘Catapults’. Edit: the website is now live here. David Willetts said at the strategy launch that ‘Catapult’ was chosen because it was both “a noun and a verb” and had “forward momentum”. The brand was dreamt up and designed by consultants working on a pro bono basis.
– There’s pretty much nothing about postgraduates. The absence is now starting to feel like a fully-fledged policy vacuum after silence from both this strategy and the White Paper. You’ll read more about this on wonkhe soon.
– Everybody still loves graphene.
But what do we know today that we didn’t really know before? The answer is not a lot. The strategy seems like an appropriate reflection of existing Government policy, which anyone that was paying attention already knew. However this is not necessarily a bad thing, as the HE sector is now weary of big change and a new fight would have been counter-productive and demoralising for government as much as anyone else.
There’s a critique of modern governments that they have placed universities subservient to business interests in policymaking. This is not a view I wholly share, but to see universities referred to as ‘external knowledge providers’ – as they are a few times in today’s strategy – is utterly cringe-worthy and fairly problematic. Language like this alienates and I can’t help but feel that this strategy would have benefited from a slightly wider reader group during its development.
There’s a big countdown clock in No.10 that’s running backwards from May 2015. The dynamics of the Coalition meant that a fixed commitment was needed from both parties, but this has created a faintly artificial timescale for policymaking. Everything has to be achieved by this date, and so genuine long-term vision is stifled. All government’s suffer from a similar expiry date, but never before has it been felt so deeply through every aspect of policy. Turn to the final pages of today’s strategy document and you will see an implementation plan that reflects the need to wrap all of this up by 2015. There’s something surreal about this when the issues it purports to address will long out-live this Parliament. Political realities once again strike a blow against good policymaking. This truly is business as usual.
A wordle of the Innovation & Research Strategy for Growth