University investment in research can drive levelling up 

Northumbria’s REF 2021 results emphasise that growing research capability can benefit teaching, business and employment, says Andrew Wathey

May 19, 2022
A see-saw with large and small piggy banks, symbolising levelling up
Source: iStock

As many a government minister has said, the key to levelling up the English regions is the transition to a high-skill, high-wage economy. That transition is impossible, or at best much harder, without investment and innovation that, by definition, cannot be centralised or monopolised in traditional areas of productivity. And universities must continue to be engines of that change. 

Universities have a crucial role if the government’s levelling up ambitions are to be met. They are central pillars of their regional economies, both as employers and as generators of revenue for other local businesses. This is before we even get to their fundamental purposes: educating students and preparing them to enter the labour market, and creating and applying new knowledge through research. And for those universities outside the Golden Triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London, their ability to challenge historic low regional productivity and skills gaps is inextricably linked to their research capacity. 

Last week, institutions across the UK learned how they performed in the Research Excellence Framework, an assessment of the quality and quantity of their academic research and, just as importantly, its social and economic impact. Some argue that such measurement is irrelevant and superfluous. But abolishing it would remove a tool in the government’s toolbox to achieve levelling up and keep UK research at its high level of global competitiveness. 

Working in a university and waiting for your result is a little like being a chef waiting to hear if you’ve been awarded a Michelin star. Reputations can be made or lost overnight, and a positive assessment can be transformative for an institution. It can help attract and retain talented academic staff that enrich students’ experiences, and it can help secure investment, collaborations and business partnerships that benefit local economies and drive innovation. 

Historically, high performance in research assessments has been the preserve of Russell Group universities, particularly those in the Golden Triangle, alongside some smaller research-intensives. But we’re now seeing a levelling up in the performance of other institutions, and this can help bridge the gap to higher wages and higher skills in areas of historically lower economic growth and productivity, where many modern universities are located. 

The transformation of the institution I have led, Northumbria University, has been under way for some time. Our position of 23rd in the UK on research power (the product of research quality and volume) is the product of a 14-year vision focused on using research to drive excellence across the whole range of the university’s activities, amplifying the benefit of the institution to students, the economy and society.

How it was done probably merits a book: the elements were numerous. To name just a few: appointing academics who are both inspirational teachers and excellent researchers; investing savings from reduced bureaucracy in facilities, support, opportunities, and culture; and creating junior researcher posts with guaranteed progression to lecturerships. To a large extent, our success was achieved by repurposing existing resources – so the costs were primarily those of transition. It was also helped by stability in the arrangements for research funding and by the motivational effects of research assessment, which I have argued elsewhere are significant for an individual, academic department or institution.

REF 2021 reveals some key trends. International benchmarking demonstrates that the UK is already both a science superpower and an innovation nation: 6,781 impact case studies provide a rich directory that will repay close study by anyone in the UK’s knowledge industry. The results also show that levelling up is already happening. 

The city of Newcastle is now home to the largest concentration of researchers outside Manchester and the Golden Triangle. And when you combine the capabilities of Northumbria, Newcastle and Durham universities, the Northeast is now the biggest research hub outside London. We’re building a northern research powerhouse that can attract the type of investment previously restricted to more affluent areas of the country. We’re building partnerships with business that drive innovation and can create high-skilled jobs. And we’re creating the conditions to arrest a historic challenge to growth and productivity – the drain of talent from regional labour markets because of a lack of local jobs and opportunity.

This has been possible through planned and sustained investment by universities in research capability. We are now seeing the benefits: Northumbria alone has more graduates entering professional and managerial roles in the Northeast than all the Russell Group universities combined. That symbolises how sustained investment in research capability can benefit teaching quality and employment opportunities, and build long-standing partnerships with ambitious, fast-growing businesses.

There is, of course, more to do to enable growing institutions to contribute to levelling up. There can be more scrutiny of the allocation of research budgets distributed across government to ensure funding is not siloed and that growing universities can play their part in building the UK’s research base. And future assessments can pay greater attention to the local benefit of research projects; this would help universities attract additional investment. 

Growth in university research capability outside the Golden Triangle can only bring social and economic good. We’re seeing it already in Northumbria – we have our Michelin star now – and others are already following. 

Andrew Wathey is vice-chancellor and chief executive of Northumbria University.

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