HuaweiIncreased investment can empower universities to drive levelling-up agenda

Increased investment can empower universities to drive levelling-up agenda

Institutions in the Midlands and North of England will be key for creating opportunities as the UK moves towards a place-based strategy for science and innovation

Economic clusters, collaboration with neighbouring institutions and increased investment in regional research and development will “unleash” opportunities to drive the UK government’s levelling-up agenda. 

Times Higher Education round table, held in partnership with Huawei, discussed how universities and industry can support the levelling-up agenda in the Midlands and North of England.

Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at THE, said the inequalities that already existed in the UK had been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. He said that the prime minister’s recent landmark speech on levelling up had failed to provide much substance in the eyes of most commentators.

However, Baty pointed out that the Industrial Strategy had reaffirmed the government’s commitment to increasing annual public funding for R&D to £22 billion by 2024. 

Lord Karan Bilimoria, chancellor of the University of Birmingham and president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said the UK had for too long underinvested in R&D. He compared the 1.7 per cent of GDP invested by the UK to the 2.8 per cent invested by Germany and the US and 4 per cent by Israel.

Lord Bilimoria said a key priority was to get universities and businesses working more closely together, with the CBI’s Seize the Moment economic strategy setting out a 10-year road map for the UK. Industry clusters were highlighted as a way to boost regional prosperity.

“Clusters at the moment make up about 6 per cent of UK employment and yet they produce double that in terms of GVA GDP of almost 12 per cent,” Lord Bilimoria said. “So we think that clusters can play a major role and the universities can be the anchor institutions in these clusters.”

Annette Bramley, director of N8 Research Partnership, agreed that clusters were important but said regions had to be “honest with ourselves about where our excellence is”.

With London and the South East receiving 52 per cent of UK R&D funding, the roundtable participants agreed a more equitable distribution was needed across the country. 

Simon Collinson, deputy pro vice-chancellor leading on regional engagement at the University of Birmingham, said that private R&D investment in the West Midlands was £398 per head, well above the UK average. But public R&D investment in the region was £83 per head, compared with about £300 in London. 

“The strategy needs to be, what sort of economic growth and levelling-up opportunities would be unleashed if you were to invest more money from the public purse in regions outside of London and the South East? Specific kinds of money targeted at particular kinds of outcomes,” Collinson said.

Philip Candice, deputy director of Huawei London, said Huawei was the third-largest R&D funder in the world, investing $20 billion (£14.5 billion) in 2020. To reduce the focus on the “golden triangle” of universities in London, Cambridge and Oxford, he suggested a shift in the traditional research funding model.

“I think there is a very strong case for adding in not just scientific, but also political and economic criteria when it comes to where to fund applied research,” he said.

Helen Turner, director of Midlands Innovation, highlighted the success of the Energy Research Accelerator, a collaboration between government, academia and industry aimed at delivering world-class research in energy technologies. Two-thirds of its £180 million investment is from industry, with the other third from government. 

“The challenge is when we’re looking for the next phase of funding, when the first time round it came from a very unconventional route,” she said.

Jane Robinson, pro vice-chancellor for engagement and place at Newcastle University, said that the role of universities “in place” would be “critical” to the levelling up agenda.

Martin Jones, deputy vice-chancellor at Staffordshire University, warned that funding methodologies favoured larger cities. “So how do you actually regenerate economies that are the small and medium-sized enterprises?” he asked. “How do we lobby government to make sure we get that funnel down to our part of the sector?”

Paul Noon, pro vice-chancellor of enterprise and innovation at Coventry University, said SMEs tended to be more research-intensive than large companies, but current systems did not support the “transfer of knowledge” in large research projects.

“We need to be thinking about pushing decision-making out of the sector, closer to where local organisations can really understand where that innovation is happening, so we can support the small, highly innovative companies that will become larger companies in the future or support larger companies,” he said. 

As well as exploring future opportunities to support levelling up, the region’s universities should promote the top-class research they already produce, said Stuart Taberner, dean for interdisciplinary research at the University of Leeds.

“It’s really about how we present the excellence that already exists in our universities that’s also authentic – it is actually rooted in the regions in which we live,” Taberner said.

Helen Marshall, vice-chancellor at the University of Salford, said universities should consider a “more demand-led and less supply side-driven” strategy for industry engagement. “But government have got to wake up and realise that it’s not just about levelling up,” she said.

“They’re missing a massive opportunity to invest in that applied, innovation, research, enterprise activity in the North and the Midlands.”

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