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University support package hailed as ‘creative and clever’


But policy experts warn that ‘big challenges persist in terms of the wider financial picture’

A university bailout package announced by the government in the wake of the coronavirus crisis has been welcomed by research policy analysts.

Announced on 27 June by business secretary Alok Sharma, the package includes loans to make up for the unexpected loss of a cross-subsidy from international students, plus £180 million to support salaries and laboratory costs.

James Wilsdon, a professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield and director of the Research on Research Institute, told Research Professional News the package was “very welcome”.

“While it’s a complicated package, I think it’s quite creative and clever in its attempt to marry the inputs of resource to the actual research aspects of the problem,” he said.

However, he added, “Big challenges persist in terms of the wider financial picture, because of the interdependencies between teaching and research.

“The part of the university balance sheet which is being squeezed over the coming months is the flexible resource we’d normally be able to move around to meet particular needs, and to invest in new strategic priorities. So even with these stabilising measures in place, universities’ capacity to invest strategically and support new activities is likely to be curtailed for the next two to three years.”

Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at University College London, told Research Professional News that the intervention was a clear indication that the government “recognises the importance of research both for the long-term wellbeing of the country but also in the shorter term to help economic and social recovery after the Covid-19 crisis”.

“We wouldn’t have this package if the government didn’t recognise that,” he said.

Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, described the package as a “good first step”.

"In a time of significant losses, this package provides welcome protection for research projects and the research workforce by helping universities support their researchers and their partnerships with businesses and charities,” she told Research Professional News.

“For UK research to drive the next generation of innovation, it will be important for government to ensure that the inspiring range of research activity across the private, public and third sector, large and small, is able to recover and flourish.”

Reacting to the package last week, Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, said the package was “a timely and welcome acknowledgement from the UK government of the importance of protecting and supporting research activities and talent as universities weather the financial storm created by the Covid-19 pandemic”.

He added: “We are committed to working with government on the fuller details of this package of loans and grants to ensure that they provide accessible support for university research and innovation across all four nations of the UK.”

Meanwhile, Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, said: “The ability to access additional loans and grants should provide help where this is needed most and act as a bridge to a more sustainable future for research. However, we need to understand more about the detailed rules that will apply.”