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What’s in the government’s independent review of UKRI?

One of many ongoing reviews of research policy and infrastructure has reported. James Coe examines how our newish research organisation has addressed a complex and challenging remit
This article is more than 1 year old

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

UKRI is the Government’s funder of research and innovation working through seven disciplinary research councils, Research England, and Innovate UK.

It’s a big organisation with a big remit – but is still very much in its infancy.

It is but a spec of sand in the beach of innovation, research, and grant making but it has nonetheless been making big waves since 2018.

As trailed previously on the site UKRI has been going through a review. UKRI came into existence just prior to Covid-19, and since then has traversed a political interregnum which has promised to level up, reach out to the world, and even shoot to the moon. It has supported Strength in Places, the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, and of course supported the sector to deal with Covid-19. In all, UKRI has seen an awful lot in its short life.

Reading the reviews

The review into UKRI was led by former Vice Chancellor at the University of Cardiff David Grant. His remit was to scrutinise the performance of UKRI and assess how it was contributing to the Government’s ambitions.

His assessment? UKRI has partially met these ambitions. It should also be recognised that meeting these partial ambitions sits within the context of UKRI as an organisation with an enormous scope. Every year since 2018 it has distributed between £7bn-£8bn of research spending.

Grant is comfortable that having a single body which amalgamates the research councils under an umbrella is a sensible way of working. He is less convinced that UKRI is as efficient as it could be – or that UKRI’s governance is allowing the most effective modes of decision making. However, he does note that UKRI appoints a set of talented people who recognise the challenges ahead of them.

In total, it looks like things aren’t quite as efficient as they could be yet but there are the people in place who might make it better. There’s a lot UKRI should be proud of and a sympathetic reading of the report would be that amalgamating disparate organisations, with an enormous budget and different ways of working, just prior to a global pandemic, is inevitably going to lead to some teething issues.

Going a bit deeper

The crux of the issue in Grant’s report is that UKRI’s governance doesn’t yet match its operating model. Grant expresses that UKRI’s identity is in conflict as either nine organisations under a single umbrella, or one organisation with nine parts. Grant believes the latter is the optimum structure of UKRI and is more aligned to its founding purpose.

A lack of settled identity, in his view, will lead to a continued waste of resource, a lack of clarity of purpose, and insufficient collaboration between research councils. Given that UKRI was developed explicitly to overcome the issue of insufficient collaboration noted within the 2015 Nurse Review this is clearly a bit of a problem.

There are some organisational issues in the report which are perhaps too niche for a general audience – but this, of course, is Wonkhe. There are concerns that a lack of harmonisation of process is leading to a duplication of function. And there are some surprising statistics around staffing. Although the report is clear to avoid drawing comparisons between staff surveys pre and post COVID it is the case that:

“UKRI was almost 30 percentage points below the Civil Service average for ‘Organisational Objectives and Purpose’, and almost 20 percentage points below the survey average for ‘Leadership and Managing Change’. In addition, UKRI’s staff were 25 per cent less likely than the survey average to say that their senior leaders are visible.

Employee turnover also sits at around 16 per cent.

Assure and deliver

Elsewhere there are some governance issues which are holding back UKRI’s effectiveness. Governance is quite complex without always achieving a clarity of outputs. The review also recommends more streamlining of decision making and greater links between board decisions and operational impact. This complexity is partially compounded by BEIS – who have a lot of objectives for the organisation, the number of ministerial appointments within the UKRI executive, and by some inefficiencies in the way in which BEIS influences UKRI’s priorities

The final section of the report looks at how the cultures and ways of working are enabling UKRI to deliver its core purpose. There is an acknowledgement in the report that staff believe improving working cultures to be a key part of UKRI’s success. There is also encouragement to URKI to build new models of funding, particularly for interdisciplinary research, and a plea that the organisation should respond more readily to the Levelling Up White Paper.

A mirror up to the sector

In all, there are a lot of issues expected of any newly minted public bureaucracy with a large team and large budget. Compound this with Covid-19, political change, and a merger of several organisations, a certain amount of disruption is perhaps inevitable. This is not to excuse any cultural shortcomings when UKRI itself is so keen on supporting better working conditions for researchers and research staff.

Part of the complication in all of this is how efficient can UKRI be when so many demands are placed upon it. The Higher Education Research Act is broad in places, for example the latitude it gives the executive, but narrow elsewhere – like in who ministers can and can’t appoint to the Board. Equally, moving from funding projects to delivery takes a long time and changing both ministers and policies on a regular basis gives little understanding of objectives or confidence they will be seen through. It would clearly be impossible for UKRI to pivot to every ministerial whim while dealing with massive challenges like Covid-19.

A key part of this debate which is perhaps underplayed in the review is what does the wider university sector really want from UKRI. After the worst of the pandemic there was much talk of more efficient review processes, quicker distribution of funds, and less red tape. This will inevitably fall out of the concurrent Tickell review of research bureaucracy but the sector has some choices to make. A more efficient UKRI is possible but the sector simultaneously, and rightly, expects an organisation which can work at speed while delivering equality outcomes; be cognisant of place while supporting excellence; and making its standard funding more accessible while innovating in new ways of working.

A judicious use of public funding is always a good thing. The challenge is not just the size of the bureaucracy but what demands government, industry, and universities place upon it. Without a clear view of its priorities, and with priorities moving, inefficiencies are inevitable.

One response to “What’s in the government’s independent review of UKRI?

  1. I think this summary is very kind to UKRI and does not sufficiently support the real and worrying concerns of David Grant, author of the report, particularly in terms of Governance, staff continuity and Leadership.

    “An update in February 2022 noted that there were 529 resignations in the previous 12 months and total employee turnover remained at 16%.”

    “The role of the members of the councils’ councils is not as clear as it should be, certainly as perceived by some members and, in practice, each council operates differently. While this may be reasonable and reflects the distinct academic communities they serve, the overall effect is one of ambiguity about the role of the councils’ councils compared to the role of ExCo or the board.”

    “UKRI there are 24 positions that are ministerial appointments with a further nine that the Secretary of State may appoint at their discretion…..Secretary of State for BEIS is responsible for 497 appointments to boards of BEIS partner organisations. … unique across government that UKRI has employees below CEO level who are ministerial appointments.”

    “Innovate UK had an interim CEO for almost three years at a crucial moment for integration and transformation for UKRI.”

    “…UKRI is not making the fullest use of UK RDI expertise and infrastructure in tackling research priorities.”

    “Between 2018 and 2021, UKRI awarded more than 52,800 grants with a combined value of more than £22.5 billion and UKRI-funded research publications were cited 2.6 times more than the global average[footnote 3].”

    Given that UKRI was the result of a series of “amalgamations and mergers” with many staff inherited, it may be the new organisation, involving further massive recruitment, is simply too big to manage successfully.

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