The higher education white paper: what does it mean for research?

This week the Government released its higher education white paper, “Success as a knowledge economy”, outlining significant changes to university education and research in the UK.

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In the first of two posts, we consider the implications of the white paper for research. The second post will focus on higher education, including the new Teaching Excellence Framework.

Most of the headline responses to the UK Government’s new higher education white paper have focused on the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework and the associated opportunity for universities to increase their tuition fees. Yet the white paper, and soon to follow Higher Education and Research Bill, will also have a substantial impact on the structure and delivery of research funding across the UK.

Last year the Government asked Sir Paul Nurse to review the structure and function of the Research Councils, and consider how they could evolve to support research in the most effective way. The Nurse Review reported in November 2015, recommending the creation of a new overarching body to provide strategic direction and cross-sector co-ordination for research, into which the individual Research Councils would report whilst retaining their autonomy. Following the promise made in the Spending Review, the white paper outlines how the Government intends to implement this recommendation.

Introducing UK Research and Innovation

In our evidence submission to the Nurse Review, we suggested that there was not a compelling case for reorganisation of the Research Councils, and that any merger would risk considerable disruption, and make engagement with external bodies problematic. However we also highlighted the need for improved mechanisms for funding and managing multi- and interdisciplinary research, and facilitating cross-Council collaboration. So how does the Government’s plan address these concerns?

First, it is clear that this does represent a substantial reorganisation of the Research Councils. The white paper asserts that the “current research funding framework presents an increasing risk to the UK’s world leading position”, and proposes a new approach to address this perceived problem.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will be a new non-departmental public body, operating at arm’s length from Government. It will bring together the seven disciplinary Research Councils, Innovate UK, and the research funding functions of the soon to be discontinued HEFCE, into a single organisation. The dual support system, of separate budgets for UK-wide competitive project funding (currently provided by the Research Councils), and England only block grant funding (currently provided by HEFCE), will be maintained within the single organisation, and enshrined in legislation for the first time.

It is intended that UKRI will take “a holistic view of the public funding that supports research and innovation”, with a focus on providing strategic direction, co-ordinating cross-cutting issues such as multi- and interdisciplinary research, a providing a unified voice for the UK’s research and innovation system.

When is a merger not a merger?

While the Research Councils will be consolidated into a single organisation, this is not a complete merger. The names and brands of the individual Councils will be retained, and they will have “delegated autonomy and authority”. Crucially, legislation will be brought before Parliament to enshrine the distinctive focus of the Councils, reflecting their royal charters, and to provide for UKRI to delegate responsibility for discipline level decision-making. Each Council will continue to receive funding individually through the annual grant letter from the Secretary of State.

Key to the new system will be the relationship between the new board of UKRI (to be led initially by HM Treasury civil servant John Kingman), and the Executive Chairs and Councils for each research discipline. Each Research Council (made up of 5-9 members from the relevant research community) will continue to set strategic delivery plans, take decisions on prioritisation of their assigned budget and liaise with their community. Funding decisions will continue to be made by disciplinary experts. However each Council’s strategic plan must be approved by the UKRI board. This board will include both research and business (although notably not civil society) representation, and as well as setting strategic priorities, will provide advice to the Secretary of State on the balance of funding across the different research disciplines.

What happens now?

In today’s Queen’s Speech, the Government signalled its intention to introduce a Higher Education and Research Bill before Parliament, which will provide the legislative footing for the changes to the UK’s research architecture outlined in the white paper, as well as the proposals for higher education. The bill will be subject to a significant parliamentary process before it becomes law, with a number of opportunities for MPs and peers to influence its final form.

We will continue to engage with this issue, working with the Royal Society of Biology and others, and are keen to hear from members. What do you think of the proposed changes to the UK’s research architecture? Do you agree with the white paper’s assertion that “funding recipients will see little change except for a simplified process”? Get in touch to let us know your views.