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Government’s industrial strategy – a good opportunity for universities

Julie Tam

Julie Tam

Deputy Director of Policy
Universities UK

The government has published its industrial strategy white paper. It shows a clear recognition of the role that universities have to play in improving the UK's productivity performance and to increase economic growth. 

Investment in R&D is a key part of the government's strategy in tackling the productivity challenge, with an ambition of increasing total R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, and 3% in the longer term. Further details of how government will invest were given, including a 20% real-terms increase in UK Research and Innovation's budget between 2015-16 and 2019-20, and increased support for quality-related research through Research England.

This is very good news – the UK's world-class dual support system for research and the current balance of funding within it is crucial to the UK's success in research, and quality-related funding supports long-term, effective decision making on research for universities. A new competitive strategic priorities fund to support multi and inter-disciplinary programmes will also ensure the UK's research base maximises its contribution to the UK's productivity and society.

Improved performance of businesses is essential to increasing the UK's productivity performance. This involves businesses creating value from cutting edge research and ensuring university spin-outs can scale up.

The white paper announces a commitment for the Higher Education Innovation Fund to reach £250m a year by 2020-21 – a significant step and what Universities UK has been asking for. The expansion of support for innovative knowledge-intensive businesses announced last week in the Budget, plus increased support for Innovate UK to pilot new ways of financing innovation will also help, and show government has been listening to views from investors to their consultation on financing growth in innovative firms.

Increasing the productivity of specific sectors is being addressed by government through 'sector deals.' The government has published criteria for future proposals to meet, including representing the breadth of the sector and involving universities where relevant. Universities UK has published additional advice to those proposing sector deals on how best to engage with universities.  

A major foundation of the industrial strategy is place: the white paper states combined authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships will lead the development of local strategies, and that universities, colleges and other institutions will be key.  Universities UK will be holding local events to help in the coming months – we'll also be looking at the new competitive £115m Strength in Places fund that was announced, which will support collaborative programmes between universities and local stakeholders, based on research and innovation excellence in places across the UK. 

The 'people' foundation of the industrial strategy recognises the UK has one of the most accomplished higher education systems in the world. Some further detail was given of the government's intention to conduct a major review of funding across tertiary education – the review will include ensuring the system is joined up, provides value for money, works for students and taxpayers, incentivises choice and competition, and encourages skills development. We would like the review to consider how the higher education system supports lifelong learning, and more flexible ways of learning.  Universities UK is planning a new project examining which employers and sectors are in greatest need of more higher-level skills acquired through flexible learning to feed into this review.  

The white paper was much more international in its outlook than its predecessor green paper, with mention of a new international research and innovation strategy to be launched in early 2018, a new £110m fund for international collaborations, and £300m over the next three years is committed to awards for top talent from the UK and overseas as well as flows of people between industry and academia through Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) and PhD programmes.

The industrial strategy presents a fantastic opportunity for universities to enhance their contribution to the UK's economic performance at the national, local and global level – universities across the UK will be increasing their involvement in the weeks and months to come.

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