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Scottish universities risk penalties if they fail to meet government targets

Universities in Scotland have committed to meeting targets in areas identified by the Scottish government such as widening access, research and knowledge exchange—risking financial penalties if they fail to deliver.

The ‘outcome agreements’ between the Scottish Funding Council and Scotland’s universities were published by the SFC on 7 December. The deal follows a £1 billion funding settlement for Scotland’s universities for 2012-13, representing a 12.4 per cent rise from the previous year.

In return, Scotland’s education secretary, Michael Russell, wants universities to deliver progress in a number of areas. The SFC will withhold funding if they fail.

Although the universities are allowed to postpone targets for research until next year, some have included them in this year’s agreements. For example, the University of Dundee has committed to increasing research income from £70,079 in 2012-13 to just over £85,000 in 2016-17. It has also pledged to increase the number of its staff with personal fellowships, investigator awards or programme grants from 104 in 2012-13 to 126 in 2016-17. In addition, it has set its success rate for applications made to Research Councils UK, the Wellcome Trust, the EU and other sources at 30 per cent.

The University of Strathclyde has pledged to increase the value of its international research portfolio from outside the EU, with a target of winning at least five additional grants worth more than £5 million.

It also wants to boost its success in the EU Framework 7 programme by winning five extra grants during 2013. And it has agreed to increase its postgraduate research students from around 1,000 now to 1,600 by 2016.

On knowledge exchange, the University of Aberdeen says it will create 10 new spin-outs, establish 25 “licences” and generation of £1.5m in licensing income by 2015.

The University of St Andrews has vowed to increase its engagements with SMEs from around 40 companies to around 60-80 a year over the next three years. It will also establish a Centre on Policy Engagement in 2012-13 to develop “stronger links in areas of public policy for both research and KE”.

Research Fortnight has already set out the details of outcome agreements for the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Herriot Watt in a previous report on 31 October.

The report showed that the University of Edinburgh has committed to signing at least 65 licences with industry in 2012-13 and creating at least 120 companies before 2016. The university must also increase its consultancy turnover by 5 per cent per year.

Glasgow has said it will increase its knowledge exchange activity by 7.5 per cent per year, boosting spending from £39.3m in 2011-12 to £42.4m in 2012-13 and £48.8m in 2014-15. It has also committed to “managing” two to three high-growth companies each year and to add to its existing open-access IP portfolio of 20 technologies, by adding 10 technologies per year.

Herriot-Watt’s targets include attracting 10 per cent more research funding from industry each year and developing one to three companies a year.

Speaking to Research Fortnight at the time, Alastair Sim, director of the vice-chancellors’ group Universities Scotland, said the process of producing the outcome agreements had been tough.

“There were difficulties in the first round from not having clear guidance and from trying to do this quickly,” he said. “This process was supposed to be concentrated on a period between April and July. So it started a bit too late to be as effective as it could have been.”

The universities have also signed up to an agreement to widen access to applicants from poorer backgrounds.