Research-intensive universities are local heroes: Spending review should support research-intensive universities’ role in levelling up

18 June 2021

Adam Clarke is policy manager at the Russell Group. This article first appeared on Research Professional

During the pandemic, government has invested previously unimaginable sums to protect jobs, support businesses and back the NHS. As a result, Treasury ministers face difficult decisions on how public spending can best deliver growth and support communities, while also starting to balance the books.

This means that the Spending Review set for autumn will involve challenging trade-offs. Investment in one area will probably mean cuts and freezes in others. Underpinning the government’s calculations will be its commitment to levelling up, delivering jobs and growth in every nation and region of the UK.

Russell Group universities have been on the frontline of the UK's response to the pandemic, providing staff and clinical resources for local NHS services, supporting drug trials that identified lifesaving therapeutics and helping create vaccines that are providing a roadmap out of lockdown. The economic impact of these interventions will be transformational.

By delivering scientific advances that are allowing the economy to reopen safely, university R&D and innovation partnerships with companies like AstraZeneca have laid the foundations for renewal. With the focus shifting to longer-term economic planning, research-intensive universities are uniquely placed to deliver on the levelling-up agenda and create sustainable jobs and growth.

As well as leading the world in their teaching and R&D, the UK’s research-intensive universities are deeply embedded in their local communities. From Cambridge to Belfast, they are often the largest employers in their cities. They support jobs across their regions, and are at the heart of city deals—the University of Edinburgh, for example, helped deliver a city deal focused on data-driven innovation—regional health partnerships and local business investments.

Collaborations between universities, local government and business have built vibrant communities centred on R&D-intensive companies and cutting-edge technologies. Accompanied by new infrastructure, homes and high-value jobs, these partnerships create pull factors in cities and their surrounding towns. Companies like Boeing, a major presence at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, are working with partners in higher education to drive growth.

Early this month, the University of Manchester announced a partnership that will deliver a £1.5 billion innovation district in the northwest, driving productivity increases in the region and across the UK. In the northeast, University of Newcastle support for the Helix project, a high-tech business and residential development, is providing similar transformational opportunities.

Maximising the contribution of research-intensive universities to the recovery requires sustainable investment in a number of areas. An ambitious funding package for both higher and further education will help consolidate the UK’s advantage in sectors like life sciences, and transform industries and communities where more remains to be done.

Universities deliver the skilled workers our economy needs, including huge numbers of graduates with higher technical qualifications and degree apprenticeships. Providing the resources for excellent teaching is critical.

Also important will be getting more detail on the government’s welcome commitment to increase public R&D funding to £22bn a year—a step change in ambition for science funding. A sustainable plan that allows the sector to build up capacity will help get the most out of this big investment, and help businesses and communities across the UK.

With the US, China and others in Europe ramping up R&D spending, meeting this target is critical for keeping UK research competitive, attracting foreign direct investment and fulfilling the government’s ambition to build a global Britain.

Investment should focus on scaling up schemes with a track record of fostering university-business partnerships that create jobs and boost local economies, such as the Higher Education Innovation Fund, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and the Connecting Capabilities Fund. A recent Research England report found that every £1 of HEIF returns over £12 for the economy and society.

Investment to tackle educational inequality would also help ensure that students from every walk of life can benefit from a high-quality university education. Our report Pathways for Potential sets out plans for a 10-year strategy to tackle inequality throughout the education system and give people from every background the opportunity to access high-quality courses that are right for them.

Despite recent projections offer a more positive picture of the UK's economic prospects, the challenge of recovering from the pandemic remains substantial. In training the skilled workers our economy needs, building innovative businesses and delivering world-changing research, Russell Group universities are ready to make a difference. Investing properly to support UK higher education will be fundamental to a sustainable recovery.

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