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Putting universities at the heart of the government's industrial strategy

Julie Tam

Julie Tam

Deputy Director of Policy
Universities UK

The chancellor's speech at the Conservative Party Conference earlier this week contained some excellent news for universities.

First, the extension of a guarantee for EU funding for structural and investment fund projects up until the UK has left the EU (subject to them being deemed to be good value for money and meeting the UK's strategic priorities). Secondly, the announcement of £220 million to advance new technologies: £100 million to extend the Biomedical Catalyst Fund, and £120 million to help universities work with businesses to transform research into viable business ventures.  

Collaboration is key to economic growth

The additional £220 million in funding rightly recognises that universities have an important role to play in the government's development of an industrial strategy. Universities help businesses thrive through supplying talented and highly skilled individuals. They also encourage business investment and innovation – a 10% increase in university research is estimated to increase private R&D investment by 7%. At times of uncertainty, businesses may be more reluctant to invest, and the UK voting to leave the EU has brought with it its share of uncertainties. University-business collaborations are resilient to economic fluctuations, and can play their part in encouraging business innovation.    

The benefits of these collaborations are felt in communities right across the UK. Examples include:

  • Lancaster University has offered leadership skills development support to over 3,000 SME owners since 2004, with the creation of 10,000 jobs.

  • The University of Strathclyde's research into laser systems has led to the creation of two highly successful spin out companies and attracted international investments from multinational company Thales Optronics, which decided to locate all its laser manufacturing in Glasgow.

  • The Open University leads MK:Smart, an initiative with businesses which is expected to deliver up to 20% in water savings and 50% less traffic congestion in Milton Keynes.

  • The University of Huddersfield and the 3M corporation joined forces to construct a purpose built innovation centre, which hosts over 100 businesses, including start-ups and SMEs, who often hire from Huddersfield's graduate talent pool.   

How can universities contribute to the industrial strategy?

The forthcoming Autumn Statement gives the government an important opportunity to maximise the contribution that universities could make in developing and implementing an industrial strategy for the UK. While the additional £220 million announced this week by the chancellor is a good start, the government has the chance to go further to secure the future of the UK on the global stage, and to ensure the benefits of economic growth are felt by people and communities throughout the UK.   

One opportunity is increasing public investment in research, and committing to a real terms increase in research funding. While the budget is currently protected in real terms, the government needs to do more so the UK economy, local economies and communities can continue to reap the benefits of our world-class research base.   

The UK significantly under-invests in research and development. We are well below the OECD average, and public investment in science and research recently fell to the lowest level of any G8 economy over the past 20 years. This is at a time when we need to consolidate our role as the partner of choice for research collaborations and in attracting foreign investment and businesses to the UK.      

The second opportunity is through increasing public investment in the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) in England. HEIF has a proven track record in driving collaborations between universities, business and the wider community – with a return of £7.30 to the taxpayer for every £1 spent. Further investment in HEIF provides a very real practical way to support local and national growth by harnessing the power of these collaborations. Serious consideration needs to be given to how the new £120 million of funding for 'technology transfer' should be allocated. There is a strong case for it – and any additional funding – to be channelled through HEIF.    

Universities UK will be submitting a representation on the Autumn Statement to the government this week. We will emphasise the prominent and crucial role that universities are willing and able to play in a future industrial strategy. We hope the government seizes the opportunities available to ensure that the UK is as well placed as possible to take its new place on the world stage, and that the benefits of economic growth are shared as widely as possible across the UK.      

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