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The case for investment in universities – government spending review

Nicola Dandridge

Nicola Dandridge

Former Chief Executive
Universities UK

As organisations make submissions to the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review 2015, Universities UK’s Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge outlines the case for investment in universities.

The arguments for sustained investment in universities and university research are well rehearsed – not least on this blog – and now they are being put to the test as the government carries out its Comprehensive Spending Review. Universities UK made its submission to the review last Friday, and between now and November (when the outcomes will be announced) will be talking to the decision makers and influencers to drive home the message about the importance to our sector – and to the UK economy – of safeguarding the vital funding streams that help to maintain our excellent teaching and world-leading research base.

Given the scale of the savings government departments have been asked to find (25% or more in real terms by 2019–20), this will be no easy task. But the rationale for doing so is compelling. As the government itself recognises, the ‘dynamic, open enterprising economy’ it wants to see is underpinned by ‘long-term public and private investment in infrastructure, skills and science’. This places universities at the nexus of any vision for future growth, improved productivity, and a high-skill knowledge economy.

On higher-level skills, university education is essential to meeting current and future demand – which is projected to rise significantly in the next five years, with almost half of all jobs requiring some form of higher education by 2022. On R&D and science, universities are at the heart of the UK’s world-leading research base, which brings great economic and social benefits to the UK. On innovation, universities up and down the country work successfully with businesses big and small to commercialise research, incubate new ideas, and upskill their employees. And at the local and regional level, universities encourage entrepreneurship, attract investment and talent to their area, and provide and create jobs.

Universities UK’s recommendations

Universities UK’s recommendations to the spending review are designed to ensure that universities can continue to deliver all this. In particular, we are calling for:

  • funding for high-cost subjects in England (such as engineering and medicine) to not fall below current levels per student in real terms
  • sustained government investment in grants that help to widen participation and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds in England
  • increased investment in teaching capital to support the expansion and competitiveness of the sector
  • a long-term strategy to increase investment in R&D, to bring it closer to that of competitor countries
  • renewal of the science ring-fence, which offered vital protection to UK R&D in the last parliament
  • sustained support for funding streams like the Higher Education Innovation Fund (in England) that allow universities to drive innovation, invest in new and emerging areas and respond to changing needs
In recent years universities have had to adapt to a financially challenging environment and have worked hard to become more cost-effective and responsive to the needs of students and employers, delivering efficiencies totalling over £1 billion in the last three years alone. They will maintain their focus on this, working hard to ensure that every pound invested is spent as effectively and efficiently as possible.

But the government should be in no doubt that misplaced or mistimed cuts in public funding will put at risk the excellence and global reputation of our universities. This, in turn, will limit the vital contribution universities can make to improving productivity, boosting growth and meeting the skills needs of our economy.

A strong university sector is fundamental to a strong economy, and ultimately a prosperous society. The outcome of this Comprehensive Spending Review later this autumn will show us the extent to which the government not only recognises this but can back it up with some tough, but positive and far-sighted, decisions.

This is the first in a series of blogs in the coming weeks commenting on the issues discussed in Universities UK’s submission to the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

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