Role of universities overlooked in UK’s new ‘growth plan’

Disappointment as ‘mini budget’ contains no new commitments on research funding or support for students

September 23, 2022
Sign at HM Treasury
Source: iStock

The continued strength of the UK’s higher education sector “must not be assumed”, leaders have warned, after the Westminster government’s “mini-budget” failed to go beyond paying lip service to the role of universities in driving economic growth.

Britain’s “elite world-leading universities” were praised as part of the opening remarks of the new chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s “Growth Plan”, but the document contained no new commitments on university funding or research, except a renewed promise to continue a review on research and development tax relief.

Further help for individuals and businesses to deal with the rising cost of living were outlined but vice-chancellors expressed disappointment at the lack of measures specifically designed to benefit students.

Mr Kwarteng introduced a series of tax and regulatory measures – including cutting stamp duty and income tax – that he hopes will boost economic growth to 2.5 per cent.

The National Centre for Universities and Business praised new opportunities for innovative start-ups and ways to unlock private investment, including a fund of up to £500 million to support investment in science and technology businesses. But, the NCUB stressed, “these measures must be underpinned by a collaborative and sustainable university sector to succeed”.

“Innovation is built up from a foundation of ideas and knowledge generated through research and people,” Joe Marshall, the NCUB’s chief executive, said.

“Beyond our tax and regulatory frameworks, our highly skilled people and knowledge-intensive institutions attract global investment. Universities play a critical role in this.”

He continued: “However, whilst the strength of our university sector must be leveraged, it must also not be assumed. Strategic public investment in education, research and collaboration is essential.

“UK public spending on research lags behind competitors, and universities are facing significant inflationary pressures on their finances.”

Dr Marshall called for a “clear and long-term plan to bring public research spending in line with our competitors, and to ensure fair and sustainable funding for higher education that will help deliver the entrepreneurial and innovative workforce needed by the UK economy”.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said the chancellor should not overlook the potential of investing in “intangible infrastructure” such as research and development as well as funding projects such as roads and broadband.

He said that the government must maintain its commitment to growing public investment in R&D to £20 billion by 2024-25, a target that is feared to be under threat given the scale of public expenditure being announced elsewhere.

Dr Bradshaw added that he was “disappointed” not to see any specific help for students to deal with cost-of-living challenges, “many of whom will be at risk of not being able to continue their studies”.

A spokesperson for Universities UK said tax cuts for high earners “will not benefit students struggling to manage their costs this autumn”.

“These students include our next generation of teachers, nurses, scientists and engineers and we can’t afford to see them drop out because they can’t make ends meet,” UUK added.

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