Research-intensive post-92s can drive levelling up

Northumbria University’s transformation, reflected in its QR allocation, will allow it to do more for its students and its region, says Louise Bracken

九月 18, 2022
Fingers walk up columns of coins, symbolising levelling up
Source: iStock

The announcement of English universities’ latest research block grants last month promoted headlines about how much market share modern universities have gained at the expense of more traditional institutions.

My institution, Northumbria University, was one of the biggest winners, seeing its allocation of quality-related (QR) funding rise from £7 million in 2021/22 to more than £18 million from 2022-23.

In reality, no institution will receive a drop in QR since Research England’s total QR budget has been increased: excellent news for the sector. But Northumbria’s 150 per cent rise is still significant. It is a consequence of the 2021 Research Excellent Framework, the results of which, published earlier this year, drive the QR funding formula. Northumbria rose to 23rd in the UK on research power: the product of research quality and volume.

This was far from a fluke. The transformation of Northumbria into a research-intensive modern university is the result of a 14-year vision that focuses on using research to drive excellence across the whole range of the university’s activities. This transformation was made possible through planned and sustained investment in our research capability – especially in our areas of real excellence, which include solar and space physics, biotechnology, multiomics for health and the environment, energy systems and materials, ice on earth, volunteering and cultural and creative industries.

While we are obviously thrilled and excited about the increased income, and the milestone it represents on our journey to becoming a research-intensive, this is not the end point for us. There is more work to do to enhance our research quality, grow our research grant income and extend and diversify our research partnerships. The recognition of our transformation and the increased QR income will enable us to further embed our support for research as business as usual, investing in research itself, underwriting staffing and supporting the pipeline of research talent through PhD studentships.

But this isn’t just about chasing research excellence for its inherent and reputational benefits. It is about supporting our students and the economic regeneration of our region.

Universities are central pillars of their local economies, as employers and generators of revenue for local businesses, as well as through fulfilling their fundamental purposes of educating students and creating and applying new knowledge. For universities outside the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London, the ability to challenge historically low regional productivity and large skills gaps is linked to building research capacity.

Modern universities tend to recruit more students from their local region and produce graduates more likely to stay in the region. More Northumbria graduates go on to work in the North-Eastern economy than nearly all other UK universities combined.

In addition, alongside offering traditional programmes, modern universities have driven innovative curriculum design for applied, sometimes multidisciplinary courses in response to emerging markets and the practical needs of the workforce. Such courses are strengthened further when underpinned by fundamental research.

At Northumbria, we aim to attract students with the highest potential, irrespective of their background. The result is that about 40 per cent of our undergraduates are from traditionally low-participation backgrounds. These students are learning from research specialists, participating in research and co-creating knowledge.

For all these reasons, it is timely that funding for research is being distributed slightly more widely, with a decreased market share of QR accounted for by institutions within both the golden triangle and the Russell Group as a whole. Yet there is more to do to enable growing institutions to contribute to levelling up.

This could include more scrutiny of the allocation of research budgets distributed across government, to ensure that funding is not siloed in traditional universities. Many modern universities support world-leading research, especially in niche areas not found elsewhere, and they could do much more. All universities must have the opportunity to play their part in building the UK’s research base.

At Northumbria, increasing our research income will further enhance the quality of our output and facilities, while simultaneously building capacity for more local students to study in a research-intensive learning environment, across a broader portfolio of courses, and to higher levels.

Such an approach will increase the knowledge and skills base of the UK’s regions. We’re seeing that outcome already at Northumbria, and other modern universities are following closely behind us.

Louise Bracken is pro vice-chancellor for research at Northumbria University.



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