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Welsh universities eye EU structural funds

A proposed focus on research and innovation in EU structural funds offers an opportunity to strengthen the university sector in Wales, a Welsh assembly committee has heard.

On 11 January the Welsh Enterprise and Business Committee took evidence from business and university representatives including Philip Gummett, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales; Iestyn Davies, head of external affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses; and Richard B. Davies, vice-chancellor of Swansea University, representing Higher Education Wales.

The session was part of the committee’s inquiry into how Welsh organisations can influence negotiations on the European Commission’s legislative proposals for EU structural funds between 2014 and 2020.

The funds—aimed at regional development of mainly poorer areas—are contributing around £1.9 billion to Wales between 2007 and 2013.

Richard Davies said that European Commission officials had made it clear that the next round of structural funds needed to be “different” and to focus on economic rebuilding.

Wales, he argued, should implement such goals through a knowledge-led economy in which universities had the support to make an impact and build stronger links with industry. He said that many universities in England were surrounded by clusters of hi-tech companies but that in Wales such developments had been slow.

“My message here is that the higher education sector in Wales is up to the challenge—we see an obligation and responsibility to deliver far more for Wales,” he said.

In written evidence to the inquiry, HEW also noted that “Commission officials have stressed research and innovation as the first priority for the next period.”

This view was echoed in HEFCW’s written evidence to the committee, which argued that EU structural funding should be “used strategically to help build capacity in ways that would … position Wales better for competitive processes such as Research Council, H2020 and European Research Council bids”.

Gummett told the session that it was hard for Wales to keep up with big investments in the higher-education sector in England because of the sector’s small mass:

“That’s why we see such an opportunity here with structural funds, which are not [as easily] available in England,” he told the committee.

The organisations also stressed the need for greater interaction between different EU programmes, such as between the Structural Funds and Horizon2020, the proposed programme for research and innovation and successor to Framework 7.

HEW welcomed a proposal that regions should establish their own innovation strategies as a condition for accessing Structural Funds. It “strongly supports” the idea that such strategies should be peer reviewed in 2012.

HEFCW proposed that it would also like to see research as an output when measuring Wales’ performance.

However, small-business representative Iestyn Davies said that although he recognised that universities had “a role to play” in driving transformation of the economy, businesses were at the heart it.