Research England budget for university research published

There are no unwelcome surprises in Research England's funding for research and knowledge exchange in the year ahead.

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

Research England has published its budget for university research and knowledge exchange.

For the more casual Wonkhe research reader the difference between research and knowledge exchange is that knowledge exchange is a catch-all term for the wide range of activities carried out between universities and their partners to apply knowledge. Research is work undertaken to acquire new knowledge.

Research quality is measured in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) while knowledge exchange is measured in the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). As Steven Hill, Director of Research at Research England, writes

Perhaps the biggest difference between KEF and REF impact is a question of focus. REF impact is very much about outcomes, and because the case studies are selected, they represent the best and most exciting examples of impact.

Although this is how performance is measured it is not entirely how research is funded.

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) sends an annual letter to UKRI on what it wishes to see Research England fund in the year ahead.

In this year’s write around DSIT confirmed its previous spending commitments, praised QR funding (this is funding allocated based on REF performance), and asked UKRI to continue to work on busting bureaucracy and befriending business where possible.

Research England, with authority from UKRI, has turned this guidance into funding budgets for the years ahead.

There is always a degree of uncertainty in allocating budgets over more than one year because priorities can change and therefore budgets can change too. The story of this budget is one of stability. The budget for 2023-24 looks very much like the budget in 2022-23. While there is only an indicative budget for 2024-25 it is broadly congruent with the budget from previous years.

Research funding in the UK operates on what is known as a dual-support system. There are UKRI specific grants that universities and researchers apply for that reflect national, research council, and sector priorities. There is also strategic institutional funding that providers get based on their research performance. Strategic institutional funding for research comes in the shape of QR funding. Funding for knowledge exchange activity comes in the shape of HEIF or higher education innovation funding. In this year’s budget 64p in every £1 of funding has been allocated toward strategic institutional funding.

The benefit to universities of certainty around the long term allocation of the majority of UKRI’s research funding is that it should allow them to plan more effectively. If government can clearly articulate its priorities in one of the numerous strategies currently being debated it should allow for an easier alignment between national priorities, funders, and universities, and in turn make it more likely policies will be delivered. The real world of funding is sadly much messier than this simple caricature.

Alongside recurrent funding there is also capital funding. This is also relatively stable standing at potentially £313m in 2024-25 up from £245m in 2022-23.

Over the next few years the national debate will not only be on the size of the funds but how they are distributed. As the sector awaits the detailed work of the response to the Nurse Review, Tickell Review, and the implementation of the Science and Technology Framework, it is possible that future budgets will look very different to this one.

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