The Innovation Challenge

A new publication out this week from the university think tank, million+, looks at the current state of research funding in universities and makes a case for a revised approach. In addition, the million+ website carries a blog piece by its chair, our VC Prof Michael Gunn.

Inevitably, since million+ universities are those who are least likely to receive the big grants and funding from REF, there is some critique of the current concentration of research funding to a small number of institutions such might prevent others from capitalising on their intellectual capital, and being able to provide new ideas into their communities.

The key findings were:

> The UK Government invests less in research and development than the leading 22 OECD countries, as a percentage of GDP

> The UK has a low level of private investment in research lying 19th of OECD countries in terms of private sector investment in research and development as a percentage of GDP

> In 2012-13, 25% of the UK’s total recurrent research funding was allocated to five universities, 50% to twelve universities and 75% to 31 universities; the remaining 130 universities shared 25% of recurrent research funding

The recommendations of the report are:

The UK Government should increase its investment in science and innovation and set a target to be in the top ten of OECD countries by the end of the next Parliament in 2020

• New approaches are needed to ensure taxpayer investment in research is more widely distributed so that businesses, wherever they are located, can benefit from the expertise of research staff and so that students get a better deal

• The UK Government should continue to fund excellent research wherever
it occurs in universities but amend the criteria to avoid critical mass thresholds excluding smaller units of researchers from funding allocations
• Funding for 2* research should be restored and an expanded science and innovation budget deployed to invest in research of national significance

• All universities with research degree- awarding powers which currently
do not benefit significantly from other taxpayer research funding should be guaranteed funds to invest in research infrastructure and staff capacity
• A new stream of funding should be established to support translational research in universities which receive less research funding from the Funding and Research Councils

• The importance of investing in STEM subjects is accepted but under-investment in social science and research associated with the creative industries must be addressed

• Account should be taken of the impact of government investment strategies in research on the institutional unit of resource available to invest in the student experience

The report provides examples of how member universities of million+ are engaged in relevant research and innovation with local and national businesses, including reference to Flux, a Staffordshire University spin out company.

A particular critique of the status quo is reserved for the hyper-concentration of research funding, and the report highlights how this has an impact on overall student experience. For instance:

despite more students being taught at modern universities at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, the average recurrent research investment was only £127 for all students or £661 for postgraduate students. This compares to corresponding figures of £2353 and £8136 across the 24 Russell Group universities. The investment per postgraduate student in modern universities is around 12 times less than in Russell Group universities, despite far larger numbers of students.

While much of the funding will not necessarily directly affect students, in an institution with greater expenditure and investment in facilities and research staff, there will be obvious benefits to the learning and teaching experience, particularly when a defining feature of higher education is that students can expect to be at the forefront of their discipline and be taught by those who are pushing the boundaries of knowledge.

Overall, a report worth reading which hopefully creates the case for reviewing the way in which research and innovation is supported in universities.