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Universities can deliver on levelling up

England's universities are a success story - UUK's Chris Hale sets out how the Comprehensive Spending Review could help the sector deliver the government's priorities.
This article is more than 2 years old

Chris Hale is Director of Policy at Universities UK and a member of Wonkhe's Editorial Group.

Our universities are playing a significant role in supporting the country during the pandemic – from the COVID-19 vaccine to the provision of facilities, staff expertise and equipment.

Graduates and other university volunteers have joined healthcare services to ease pressure on front line services.

As restrictions are lifted the contribution of universities will continue, shifting from emergency response to supporting the recovery and building back. Our figures show that over the next five-years universities have the potential to provide support to businesses and charities of more than £11.6 billion, creating 21, 650 new businesses and charities and attracting £21.7 billion in high value research funding across the towns and regions of the UK. Data published this week also shows the direct economic impact of our universities across the county. Universities generated more than £95bn of gross output in the economy in 2018-19, with a significant contribution to the English regions and supporting more than 815,000 jobs.

On Rishi’s list?

The forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review provides a great opportunity to build on this success. In our submission to CSR 2021 we set the sector’s commitments to build back after the pandemic, create opportunity across the whole country, position the UK on a global stage and secure our world class reputation for quality and value. To help universities deliver these commitments we believe there are areas where targeted government investment and support are vital.

Universities share the government’s ambitions to make sure everyone can develop their skills to get good jobs, both now and into the future. The establishment of a lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) provides the opportunity for individuals to study higher-level courses more flexibly at any stage of life. Universities will work in partnership with the government to deliver this pioneering change. For learners to get the most out of this, whether in work or studying flexibly, we are asking government for targeted investment that can drive transformation and catalyse sector led change.

We propose that the most innovative and impactful plans for change by higher education institutions are supported by the government. Funding would be allocated based on the level of ambition, magnitude of anticipated benefits, and expected impact funding would have on accelerating the speed of change. In England the OfS’s short course challenge fund is an excellent example of how government can support change and experimentation. It will also be important to maintain the available spend per student to ensure the quality of UK higher education is not compromised. A cut or further erosion of this would lead to a diminishing of quality and hit the ability of universities to invest, develop new forms of provision, and deepen their regional impact.

Levelling up and sharing

Universities are well placed to help regions recover and grow, and support businesses to innovate and adapt to new challenges such as delivering net-zero. The recently announced civic university agreement between five universities in Greater Manchester shows the power and potential of universities to drive growth at a regional level. In 2018/19 alone £2.4 billion was generated in turnover from graduate start-ups and university spin out activity directly benefiting local areas and creating new jobs.

To go further we are asking government to invest more in the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) in England, and similar funding streams in the devolved administrations. These relatively modest funding streams leverage private investment and help to get new knowledge and innovation into businesses. £10 is generated for every £1 of funding, that is a good return for investment. The UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) and Levelling up Fund can also be used to support university collaborations in skills training, business support, and research and innovation with existing and new partners across the private and public sector.

Global leadership

We have one of the world’s best and most attractive higher education systems. Our global education activities accounted for 67 percent of all UK education exports and international higher education has been among the UK’s largest and fastest growing service export sectors. Targeted investment, alongside the implementation of the government’s ambitious plans for growth in higher education exports and global research collaboration, will help the UK’s universities to provide a major boost to local economies, jobs, inward investment, and national competitiveness. We’re asking government to continue and grow investment in Study UK and stable longer-term investment in the Turing scheme to drive student mobility and increase our global standing and influence.

The UK’s position as a global research superpower is underpinned by our university-based research. University based research is critical to innovation and driving recovery across the regions and nations of the UK. The government has committed to spending 2.4 per cent of GDP on research and development, which equates to a £22bn public investment in R&D by 2024/25. It is crucial that government continues to stick to these commitments. Stop-start investment does not work, and once lost, research capacity takes time to re-build and the UK will lose ground to competitor countries.

For our part, universities are committed to protecting and enhancing the quality and value of what we provide for our students and will collectively address legitimate challenges that threaten to undermine public confidence. We are committed to innovation, while learning the lessons from the pandemic and ensuring the highest-quality higher education offer. We will also continue to drive efficiency wherever we can, getting the most out of investment made by students and the public.

Our contribution to the spending review shows what universities can and will do. We look forward to working in partnership with government to deliver this success.

One response to “Universities can deliver on levelling up

  1. A rare blog, thanks Chris. Rare because it tackled HE finances and future in a balanced – bordering on positive – way. Government support for our stretched sector has never been more important. We’re all now watching this space…

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