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Bill brings benefits, but the risks need more attention

UKRI can be a powerful voice in government, but the synergies between research and teaching must not be weakened, says Ottoline Leyser.

Changes on the scale set out in the higher education and research bill pose risks. These have to be weighed against the hoped-for benefits and the opportunities to mitigate the risks. How to navigate these risks, benefits and opportunities has generated considerable debate. 

The debate is playing out against the background of Brexit. For some, this is a reason to scrap the bill altogether. For others, it makes attaining the potential benefits even more pressing. The Royal Society’s working group charged with scrutinising the bill falls more into the latter category, but more should be done to mitigate the risks.

The bill, like the proverbial football match, is a game of two halves. On the research side, the stated aims are to implement the recommendations of Paul Nurse’s 2015 review of the research councils. This concluded that while the councils serve their communities well, they struggle to provide an integrated voice for research in government and wider society.

The review says: “For a national research endeavour to be successful there needs to be an effective dialogue and understanding between research scientists, politicians and the public.” The current system is not optimally configured to mediate the “effective dialogue”.

To address this, the Nurse review recommended establishing an overarching body to act as an interface between the councils and government. In the bill, this body, UK Research and Innovation, includes Innovate UK and the core funding element of the dual support system administered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

In doing so, the bill enshrines dual support in law and protects Innovate UK’s business-facing role. It gives UKRI a wider and therefore stronger overview of UK research, which must be extended via communication with other major funders such as charities and government departments. Establishing UKRI along these lines will give research a powerful voice at a time when the prospect of Brexit is reshaping the socio-political landscape.

A prominent concern about the research half of the bill is that it strengthens top-down government control, in contravention of the Haldane principle that researchers should decide what research to fund, although the white paper underlying the bill specifically supports the Haldane principle.

Nonetheless, the bill would also revoke the research councils’ royal charters, and allow the secretary of state to create and abolish councils. The Royal Society recommends an amendment that would require appropriate consultation before any such change.

Importantly, deeper engagement between government and the research system necessarily opens the door to top-down influence, but also to greater bottom-up influence. This dialogue is exactly what UKRI aims to achieve. Today, research councils compete against each other for funds, creating strong top-down influence. If UKRI works well, its unified voice will support a more effective two-way interaction.

This requires a strong flow of information up from each research council’s community. To mediate this flow, the Nurse review recommended a committee of the research council chief executives within UKRI. This measure is not mentioned in the bill, fuelling concerns about top-down bias. The government has published a helpful clarification setting out its intention to establish such a committee, but the Royal Society takes the view that the committee should be on the face of the bill.

On the teaching side, the bill aims to improve quality and choice for students. The expansion of higher education over recent decades clearly requires more diverse provision, including high-quality teaching-focused universities. What is less clear is whether market-style competition, with top-down regulation and metrics-based assessment, can deliver this diversity and quality.

Tertiary education is not a commodity and it is not a simple extension of secondary education. Universities provide integrated skills development, equipping students to navigate new situations and assess ideas and discoveries. This is why the integration of teaching and research is crucial.

This is the bill’s greatest weakness. Diversity is essential, but the synergies between teaching and research must not be weakened. The separation of teaching and research into different government departments, and within the bill into different administrative structures—UKRI and the Office for Students—creates a major risk. To mitigate this risk, the bill should include stronger requirements for interaction between UKRI and OfS, with a duty to cooperate on issues at the interface between teaching and research.

Amending the bill to mitigate its risks is essential. Ultimately however, its success in realising transformative improvements will depend on how, and therefore by whom, it is implemented. The quality of leadership at UKRI and OfS will be paramount.

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Ottoline Leyser is chairwoman of the Royal Society Science Policy Advisory Group and professor of plant development at the University of Cambridge. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight