Universities are facing something of a perfect storm.
The sector will be hit hard by the uncertainty over international fee income and whilst there are positive signs of sensible visa arrangements being put in place for those who start online and transition to campus when safe to do so, the financial consequences will likely still be significant.
UK government funding of research is set to increase but international fee income has historically subsidised research activity, and there are still issues to resolve in relation to EU research funding arrangements post-Brexit and the matter of Erasmus funding for those programmes where students spend a year abroad.
The government has set a target to increase investment in research and development to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027. While the last Budget pledged a welcome increase of funding to £22bn, GDP is set to fall so in real terms 2.4 per cent may not be enough to realise the benefits from university research as whole.
The research of business
Since the pandemic began, research priorities have understandably focused on the underpinning science relating to testing, transmission, and vaccination. Even if a reliable vaccine is developed, there are many other challenges ahead in terms of wider economic recovery; challenges which the research undertaken in our business schools can help with.
After months of enforced remote working, businesses, charities, and public organisations are rethinking the very nature of work. Flexible, fractional roles with a greater emphasis on working from home is a message that is being heard loud and clear from larger organisations. The consequences in terms of skills mix and digital infrastructure sit alongside bigger questions about place and space.
A significant drop-off in business rates as organisations downsize their office requirements may be offset by improved tax take driven by a transition to cashless transactions in even the smallest businesses. Local and national government need to be alert to these and other changes and business research will have an important role to play in shaping appropriate responses. Covid-19 is taking a toll on individual lives but from an organisational perspective, it has also accelerated digital, environmental and economic change that had begun to happen pre-lockdown.
The well is drying up
As the government looks to ease restrictions and open up the economy it needs to foster research collaborations that combine science and business to create a more inclusive, sustainable and dynamic economy for us all.
Worryingly, though overall research funding has grown 14 per cent in real terms over the past five years, the Chartered Association of Business Schools has found that business-related research accounts for just one per cent of the total and has grown just two per cent in real terms in five years. Indeed, it is 18 per cent lower than ten years ago while funding in STEM fields has grown 21 per cent in that time.
The opportunity to rethink and reshape our economy needs high quality science and technology to work hand in hand with equally high quality research on the organisational, logistical and consumption dimensions of the challenges we face. Our business schools already have expertise in fields which aren’t obvious but are nonetheless critical to our recovery from the current pandemic and will shape our response to future pandemics.
Researchers at Surrey Business School are looking into the impact of the lockdown on mental health. Salford Business School is investigating the implications of Covid-19 on socio-economic inequality. Researchers at Alliance Manchester Business School are looking at city-region transport systems, while research on using data to understand public health and consumer behaviour is underway at Nottingham University Business School.
These four examples represent just a glimpse of the science of economic recovery that lies beyond the laboratory. Better engagement between industry and leading research on business and management will lead to better outcomes.
The welcome emphasis on research excellence with associated growth in research funding needs to cover the whole range of science, engineering and business if we are to maximise our ability to offer evidence-based insights to our policymakers and business leaders. Creating a more resilient, inclusive and sustainable post-Covid economy is in all of our interests and will call on the expertise of a full range of specialists in UK universities.