This article is more than 1 year old

Does the Welsh government really care about university research and innovation?

For Richard Wyn Jones, Wales’ new innovation strategy is full of aspiration but seriously short of practical solutions
This article is more than 1 year old

Richard Wyn Jones is Director of the Wales Governance Centre and Dean of Public Affairs at Cardiff University. He writes here in a personal capacity

In early February 2022 the Welsh government finally killed off the Reid review-derived strategy designed to encourage and enable Welsh universities to close the massive gap in research funding capture.

At the time, economy minister Vaughan Gething attempted to deflect any criticism – Wales has five per cent of the UK population but attracts only around two per cent of UKRI funding – on the basis that a new innovation strategy would soon take its place. At least by implication, the message was “trust us, we’ve got this!”

That strategy was published just over a year later on 27 February. Unfortunately, those reading the document in search of anything genuinely substantive – let alone potentially transformative – will have been sorely disappointed.

Indeed, with many of the key details of the strategy still to be worked out, and the body meant to deliver on it not even constituted yet – and apparently struggling to attract a suitable chief executive – it’s fair to ask whether the Welsh government is actually serious about research and innovation in Wales’ universities?

The vision thing

The strategy document is big on what George HW Bush once sardonically termed “the vision thing”. It seeks to “create and nurture a vibrant innovation culture for a stronger, fairer, greener Wales,” envisaging a “shared mission to secure greater wellbeing for the future generations of Wales; an integrated new strategy to guide government, business, third sector, academia and people to deliver ambitious, but achievable goals.”

The resulting strategy is organised around four “missions”: education, economy, health and wellbeing, and climate and nature. Given that “the foundations of a culture of innovation lie in our schools, colleges and universities,” it makes sense that the education “mission” is dealt with first. But alas, beyond uplifting examples of good practice around graduate start-ups or research-influenced policies around adoption, readers will search in the document in vain for any genuine substance around the proposed role for university research and innovation activities.

Where’s the beef?

“Where’s the beef?” was Walter Mondale’s famous question of fellow presidential-hopeful Gary Hart. As Vaughan Gething prepares to launch his much-anticipated campaign to become First Minister once Mark Drakeford finally steps aside, those working in universities in Wales might be forgiven of asking him the same question.

Take the following passage, representing as it does the most substantial engagement with the future of university research and innovation activities to be found in the whole strategy document:

HEFCW is also exploring how a more strategic approach can be developed to help maximise grant capture from other sources. Welsh Government will continue to work with HEFCW (and in the future its replacement, CTER), Wales Innovation Network (WIN), universities, and the wider tertiary education sector to support a collaborative approach to optimise the value of research and innovation funding for our priorities.

HEFCW is of course shortly to be abolished. Meanwhile, the Welsh government has recently announced that it has been unable to appoint a chief executive for the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER). The idea that, now or at any point in the foreseeable future, either will be in a position to address the Welsh university sector’s chronic weaknesses with regards to attracting research and innovation funding is for the birds.

Meanwhile, anyone taking a serious interest in higher education in Wales will be aware that the reality of WIN – as opposed to the hype that surrounds it – is extremely modest.

Reid minus

Given that the new innovation strategy is replacing a strategy about which the minister has tended to be rather disobliging, namely that produced by the Reid review, it’s natural that we compare them. Unfortunately for the minister and his department, the comparison is far from flattering. On any basis, the new strategy represents a massive regression from its predecessor.

Reid was based on a clear-eyed analysis of current weaknesses and proposed a carefully targeted approach to overcoming them – an approach that meshed with the incentive structures that dominate in higher education.

In all of this, the contrast with the new innovation strategy could hardly be starker. While high on aspiration – and laden with platitudes – it shies away from acknowledging (let alone engaging with) the factors that contribute to the chronic underperformance of the sector, and completely fails to give a sense of what the government thinks success might look like or how to deliver it.

Getting the show on the road

Those eager to defend the new strategy will doubtless urge potential critics to await the publication in due course of an innovation action plan that will set out the government’s plans for implementation.

They might also point to the commitment to establish a central innovation team that will bring together innovation leads from across government departments. The intention is that the new CTER and its innovation sub-committee will support this team. But again, one searches in vain for detailed information about what this would look like in practice, to say nothing of timescales for delivery.

Perhaps the only piece of genuinely good news for the sector is the pledge that the action plan, when it finally appears, will have been developed in close collaboration with Innovate UK. At least here we might find someone with some influence on the process of developing an innovation strategy for Wales that is genuinely committed to the role that universities – and university research – can play.

But that we need to look outside Wales itself for this is yet another damning indictment of the lack of political clout of the country’s university sector.

No wish fulfilment

When in 2021 responsibility for higher education research and innovation policy in Wales was transferred back from the education to the economy department, the move was generally welcomed in Wales’ universities.

Here, perhaps, was an opportunity to secure more interest in and attention for an area of policy that has struggled for salience alongside other more high-profile issues such as early year education, school curriculum reform, and the like – especially as other responsibilities were simultaneously being removed from the economy portfolio, leading to hope that there would now be some real time and energy to devote to research and innovation.

Unfortunately, however, it’s proven to be a case of “be careful what you wish for.” The economy department – minister and civil servants alike – would seem to have very little interest in research and innovation in general, and certainly not for the role that universities might play in transforming Wales’ poor record in this regard.

All of which suggests that the chief executive of new CTER, whenever she or he is appointed, will face something of a dilemma in terms of working out how much emphasis to place on research and innovation. These are a formal part of the remit of the new body, and the more research intensive of Wales’ universities will expect real engagement and action. Nonetheless, faced with a daunting array of other problems, the eventual leader of CTER may well conclude that all that is required to tick this particular box is the production of the occasional boosterish policy document and press release.

After all, if it’s good enough for the Welsh government and its new innovation strategy, then why shouldn’t it be good enough for the CTER?

3 responses to “Does the Welsh government really care about university research and innovation?

  1. Can Welsh government be serious about research in Wales’ Universities, given the performance of investments made using ERDF funding? Such enormous sums of money were wasted on vanity projects, projects that showed next to zero return on investment or pet projects of a PVC. I think it’s entirely understandable that WG would be reluctant to poor more money into University R&D.

  2. An impact strategy that harnessed social sciences and the STEM areas together to evaluate with a colder eye what might work, and emphasised co-design and engagement with policy makers would help.

  3. I’d say it is less that they don’t care about university research and innovation, and more that in an era of 12% inflation, if you want to protect the NHS and Local Government, then you can’t really care about anything else.

    Where do people think the NHS pay rises are coming from…

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