Rothwell: Covid crisis puts UK research ‘under huge threat’

Manchester v-c also calls for rethink on REF and predicts UK will not join next EU research programme

July 8, 2020
Dame Nancy Rothwell, University of Manchester, British Science Association

The coronavirus crisis puts UK universities’ research under “a huge threat” just as they are leading the fight against the pandemic, could herald “mergers and acquisitions” among institutions, and should bring a reshaping of research assessment, according to the University of Manchester’s vice-chancellor.

Dame Nancy Rothwell, who will become chair of the Russell Group in the autumn, also told the University of Buckingham’s Festival of Higher Education that she thought it unlikely that the UK will join the European Union’s next research programme under “full membership”.

Speaking on the theme of “the research challenge”, Dame Nancy said it had long been known that research funding covered only about 70 per cent of the full economic cost of research for universities. The remainder was subsidised by universities – a situation she described as “probably not sustainable” – through “commercial activities” such as accommodation, conferences and international student recruitment.

“Every one of these income streams is under serious threat” because of the crisis, she warned.

It was “reasonable” to estimate the inward investment brought to the UK by international students at £22 billion a year, Dame Nancy said, with other estimates suggesting that between 10 and 90 per cent of international student numbers in the UK could be lost.

This was a “huge threat to university research at the present time”, she added.

Another research challenge was presented by the diminishing prospects of the UK gaining full association to the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme, Dame Nancy said. The “costs will be hard to justify” for the government against the likely returns in funding, she added.

But Dame Nancy said that from speaking to government figures, she was encouraged that its plans to raise UK research spending to 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product “are still on the agenda despite the big threats” to Whitehall budgets brought by the crisis.

The crisis has highlighted that much of the future of research would lie in addressing global challenges such as climate change and global health, meaning a greater emphasis on “collaboration”, “partnership” and “interdisciplinarity”, Dame Nancy argued.

Universities and government would “have to rethink…how we assess research”, and the UK’s research excellence framework was “going to have to change”, she continued. Asked for further details, she said that it should be “lighter touch”, praising the “interesting” example of the Netherlands’ assessment exercise – although she noted that the Dutch exercise “is not linked to funding”.

The REF is “going to have to move away from dependence on individuals” and “look more at groups”, with a “more dipstick” approach that involves selecting, Dame Nancy suggested, 10 per cent of research output “randomly”.

Dame Nancy also said that there should be research partnerships at “country level”. The EU was a key priority, but in general “we cannot ignore China”, she noted. “In terms of having a [research] partnership with China, that might be a stronger route than having a conflict.”

More generally, Dame Nancy said universities “may be different” in the future.

She added: “There is a high likelihood of there being more mergers, more acquisitions; I think there will be more partnerships, collaborations and associations. And I think there might be more need for distinction and differentiation.

“There is a risk at the moment that we have a lot of universities that are actually quite similar. And it may be we will have to think about ‘What are we really good at? What are we really aiming for?’ rather than all doing exactly the same things.”

She predicted that the “community, society implications of what we [universities] do are going to be much more at the forefront”.

“I do think the ivory towers will have to come down a little more than they have come down so far,” Dame Nancy added.

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