Beyond the here and now

Dianne Berry says the HE framework must account for the future potential of universities, not just their current work

August 27, 2009

Combating terrorism, protecting children online, tackling earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, and ensuring lifelong health and wellbeing are just some of the critical issues that our universities are working on. It is vital that the Government does all in its power to strengthen the UK's research base to face these challenges now and to prepare universities to meet future unforeseen problems. Get the policies wrong and the nation's ability to tackle major situations will be severely weakened.

We are currently faced with global economic instability and there is mounting pressure on public spending. The Government needs to direct funding towards the most pressing concerns, but it must also take a longer-term view and ensure our universities remain an asset in the future.

Innovative research generates new ideas that boost fast-growing, modern industries such as those focused on the digital economy and the environment. It enables UK businesses to achieve competitive advantages and reduce financial risk. Research is fundamental to informing public policymaking, developing and delivering public services and improving government decision-making. Our universities are central to taking society forward.

The Government must act now to implement long-term policies that support our universities to work in partnership with business and the public sector to ensure the UK's economic prosperity in the longer term.

First, the Government must fund the very best research ideas. In addition to supporting research addressing current problems, we must retain a significant funding stream for what might currently seem like curiosity-driven research, but may well provide answers to tomorrow's problems.

Second, the autonomy of our universities must be protected so that we can drive innovation and respond flexibly to changing needs. We must be able to retain our capacity to invest in new and emerging areas, grow and support new talent, protect important subjects and initiate collaborations with new academic, business and other partners. To do this, quality-related (QR) research funding is vital: it brings the necessary continuity, supports forward planning and enables institutions to develop local strategies. The dual support system must be maintained to ensure that we retain our current enviable position in the world rankings, second only to the US.

Third, the Government must not spread QR funding so thinly that we risk damaging our world-class research areas within our universities.

Fourth, we must complement the much-needed investment in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects with continuing investment in world-leading research in arts, humanities and social sciences. Increasingly, success in markets depends just as much on factors such as design, economics, branding and consumer understanding as on technological advances. The sciences, technology, arts, humanities and social sciences complement one another; they do not exist in a hierarchical relationship. The boundaries between them are becoming increasingly fluid as research at the frontiers of knowledge become increasingly inter- and multidisciplinary.

Fifth, the Government must provide support for the development of new researchers. We must have the resources and organisation to train the world-leading researchers of the future. Ring-fenced funding that supports advanced skills, training and career development of postgraduate research students and early postdoctoral researchers is essential.

The world-class, innovative research at our universities underpins our prosperity and improves our quality of life. Universities are vital to the UK's capacity to meet current and future national and global challenges and drive economic growth. The 1994 Group will shortly be publishing a report setting out recommendations to strengthen our research base. It is critical that the Government implements policies to ensure that the investment in university research has maximum impact for the benefit of all.

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