In the most recent Budget, the Chancellor reaffirmed the government’s ambition to level up the UK economy, with public investment across all regions and nations aiming to produce new job opportunities and encourage growth.
Core to this ambition will be increasing the UK’s spending on research and development to 2.4 per cent of GDP, after years of lagging behind other comparable nations. Research and innovation are key determinants of economic dynamism and growth, helping to increase productivity and deliver well-paid jobs.
Improving the UK’s current performance in this area will be essential to successful recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and will help to reduce the economic imbalance prevalent across the UK’s regions.
Other countries, such as the United States and Germany, rely on government research centres to drive their research and development (R&D) activity. Our strength lies in our world-leading higher education sector. The British higher education sector contains many of the world’s finest research universities, which have consistently produced groundbreaking discoveries in a wide variety of fields.
Most recently, this has included the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine developed at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, which has the potential to protect the global community from Covid-19.
Regional value, national strengths
I want this country to better use university research excellence to level up. I am therefore chairing a new inquiry for the Higher Education Commission, looking into the vital role universities’ research can play in helping our regional economies to grow. The Higher Education Commission is an independent body which brings together leading figures from Parliament, the higher education sector and industry to examine education policy and recommend innovative policy solutions.
This inquiry, which I co-chair with Lord Norton of Louth, will look into how we can improve collaboration between universities and industry, increase the commercialisation of the UK’s cutting-edge research, and develop hubs of R&D in all regions of the UK. Universities have always been important institutions in their local economies and our ambition is to establish them as centres of innovation which help to create new business opportunities and jobs in their localities.
Our inquiry will build on vital work such as the Civic Universities Commission, the UK 2070 Commission, and other research which explores regional inequalities or universities’ role as anchor institutions.
Partnership and commercialisation
Core themes of inquiry will include creating an environment which provides the right incentivises for universities to work actively with wider partners on innovation projects. Two other important themes will be the skills base needed, and the framework for funding allocation.
We’ll be looking at what must be done to remove some of the major obstacles to regional R&D growth that Lord Norton and I have already heard about. We’ll review the process of commercialisation so as to avoid missing opportunities following groundbreaking academic research, and enabling the UK to reap the commercial and financial benefits of our world-leading research excellence.
During the inquiry we will review the current funding and decision making structures which are in place and analyse how they incentivise and encourage academia to participate in R&D related activity. I have recently engaged with pro vice chancellors for research from a range of universities to understand their experience of undertaking research and innovation, whether through their own efforts or in collaboration with external partners.
It became clear that many of these institutions’ ambitions were held back by the current funding systems, such as the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), which prevented non-funding recipients from expanding their research activity. While the Research Excellence Framework (REF) has brought benefits, universities felt its current format has incentivised a reduction in engagement with industry, leading to lower levels of research commercialisation and innovation emerging from higher education institutions.
Universities felt a system which fosters more collaboration within the higher education sector, rather than enforcing competition, could enable higher education institutions to develop globally competitive centres of excellence in their respective regions and across the nations. In order to level-up regional economies, we will need to address these problems to enable universities of all sizes to achieve their ambitions.
By removing barriers to greater research output, external engagement and cross-sector collaboration, universities can become centres of economic activity that generate benefits throughout their locality and across the UK.
Over the next few months, the Higher Education Commission will be holding evidence sessions for the inquiry. Each will have an expert panel of witnesses providing evidence to our Commissioners. We will concurrently launch a written call for evidence which invites stakeholders from higher education, business and local government to make submissions. We will be publishing our call for written evidence in April.
The next evidence session will focus on the experiences of SMEs in undertaking and collaborating on R&D projects with university partners. We will hear first-hand accounts from SMEs and will have representatives from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership provide expert evidence.
We hope you will join us in this exciting inquiry, which aims to provide a step-change to the ability of the higher education sector to underpin economic growth and deliver real results for all regions of the UK.
The next evidence session will take place on Thursday 15 April from 11.00-13.00. You can register to watch the session via Zoom here.