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Image: Chris McAndrew [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The QR funding boost is promising but universities must sell its benefits, says Chris Skidmore

OK, £100 million may not be what Universities UK or the wider sector were hoping for—but it remains a promising start.

In bringing forward QR— quality-related research funding—in measures announced yesterday to support universities, the government has recognised it as the essential gateway that it deserves to be.

When I was appointed science minister in 2018 the research landscape I inherited pointed to a real-terms decline in basic science funding over the past decade, masked by a rise in challenge-led funding streams linked to the Industrial Strategy. I was determined to change this, and was delighted to able to achieve the first sign of a turnaround in policy with a real-terms increase in QR last year.

The recent manifesto commitments and the budget proposals for an uplift in public investment in R&D funding have also pointed to the importance of QR. So there is hope that come next year’s QR allocation, and going into the (for now suspended) Spending Review, we will see future real term rises in QR: tipping more than £2 billion this year and ideally a commitment to it rising in line with the doubling of the public research budget by 2024-25. This would mean a rise to around £4-4.5bn over the next five years.

I saw for myself the value of a strong QR research base: how it allowed universities themselves to be the masters of their own destiny, in essence devising their own local research strategies with the money that allowed them to bid further into the grant system. If a succession of overlaying grants were the bricks by which universities have built their research empires, then QR was very much the mortar binding them together.

The attraction of using QR as a lever is that it not only gets the money to the front line as swift as possible, cutting out the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) middleman, its pseudo-devolved nature points to the future of cascading R&D funding down to a local level as best possible, using established channels. These levers are held by the trusty hands of David Sweeney and his team at Research England, whose wise words yesterday are worth reflecting upon:

“Accelerating this funding recognises an immediate need and the shared responsibility between government, funders and universities in supporting national economic and societal recovery.

“English universities will want to similarly develop more detailed proposals to build an efficient, effective and sustainable research and development system and Research England looks forward to working with them and the government to achieve that end.”

Efficient, effective, sustainable: look forward to those words being repeated a lot in the next few months. With greater public investment than ever before in QR, there will be a need for greater transparency, and a greater demonstration that every pound spent is going as far as it can. This is the drive behind the government’s independent bureaucracy review—it’s not merely so that UKRI can put its own house in order, as it has already begun to demonstrate, but so that the wider university and research sector can look afresh at how we can reduce valuable time taken to fill out grant applications and paperwork that might be keeping researchers’ minds from their essential work.

The effectiveness of university research may seem obvious given its central role in tackling the response to Covid-19, but there is clearly a wider, and more protracted, debate about how to harness more effective university and industry collaboration, especially in light of the 2.4 per cent target. Don’t expect this figure to go away any time soon. If anything, the goal ahead, like health secretary Matt Hancock’s 100,000 tests target, can and will drive an industry-wide response if the incentives are cast widely enough.

As I stated in my ‘levelling up’ speech at Durham University in January, “it is in partnership with industry and academics in our existing research institutions and our existing universities, that we will deliver the uplift in the doubling of the R&D budget. It will be by empowering existing institutions, and strengthening their collaborations, that we will have the maximum impact”.

The challenge, of course, will be avoiding Goodhart’s Law, which is why sustainability of future QR funding is perhaps the most important part of the ‘new normal’ agenda. Pre-Covid, this was to focus on how we could create a ‘Research People’ strategy—ensuring that early career research pathways were a core part of the 2.4 per cent agenda, including precarity and pay; that a focus on how research is done should be as important as what research is done; and to look at how university research should be financed for the future. Post-Covid, this last point now seems utterly unavoidable.

With the establishment of a new advisory committee looking into the sustainability of university research, now must be the moment to seize the opportunity to end, once and for all, the ill-advised dependence of university research on income from international students. This means firstly ensuring that when it comes to the balance of dual support, grant-based funding is funded at 100 per cent of full economic cost of research. But it must also mean that all institutions sign up to an agenda that prevents cross-subsidy going on under the radar.

The curate’s egg which is university funding may or not yet be fully broken. We await to see what will happen finally with student intakes, both domestic and international, this year but that doesn’t mean we should try and stick it back together again to replicate the past.

When it comes to both effectiveness and sustainability there is also an important separate issue at stake: the prime minister’s commitment to levelling up. Like 2.4 per cent, don’t expect this to go away. In my own speech at Durham University, I highlighted the discrepancy in QR that currently exists: in 2017 to 2018, London universities were awarded more than £10,000 per researcher in QR funds. The figure in the West Midlands or the North West is half that size.

The reason I raise this is to anticipate where the debate is likely to go for the future. Universities have a chance to lead that debate, but only if they recognise the national priorities that the government is also going to wish to advance. Richard Brabner from the UPP Foundation has recently written perceptively for the Higher Education Policy Institute on the importance of the HE sector recognising this in order to work together better, and to achieve the most positive, mutually desirable, outcomes.

This first £100m of additional QR funding should be welcomed, but universities should try to do all they can to demonstrate its vital importance for the Covid-19 recovery—by going out to sell its benefits together. Ideally, institutions should publicise and highlight where this money will go, working in collaboration where possible to demonstrate its necessity.

The potential opportunities for escalating research across universities over the next decade can be transformative, but universities should be doing all they can to avoid simply looking for a handout.

Instead, they should demonstrate that this investment is, in fact, a hand-up for local regions and their economies, which will benefit from increased R&D expenditure, and, vitally, for the next generation of young people committing themselves to a research career that will change society for the better.

Chris Skidmore is a Conservative MP and former minister for universities and science.