Risks and Routes to Resilient Research

Article looking at some of the challenges in building a more resilient UK research sector.

The UK has a world-class research and innovation system, ranking first for research quality in the G7 for over a decade and placing in the top four of the Global Innovation Index. But building a more resilient UK research sector will mean navigating a path through financial uncertainty, political instability, global climate emergency and a potential future outside Horizon Europe.

This ResearchConnect article looks at some of the challenges for higher education and research organisations, and some of the actions needed to create a more resilient UK research sector.

Beyond Brexit Borders for Researchers and Students

Post-Brexit, the UK research and innovation (R&I) community has been a strong advocate not only for maintaining international cooperation between institutions, but also for remaining an attractive destination for international students and researchers, who make a significant contribution to the success of UK universities and the overall R&I sector.

Provisions in the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement, coupled with the government’s funding guarantee for projects awarded grants under Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe, have given short-term reassurance to researchers, but also made for an uneasy wait while progress on future association and access to European Union funds stalled.

For UK researchers in receipt of European Research Council (ERC) funding, their wait ended abruptly in April 2022, when the ERC instructed UK grantees to either relocate their projects to an EU Member State or relinquish their grants. Despite the Horizon Europe funding guarantee and the publication of provisional plans for a UK-based Horizon Europe replacement, the precedent set by the ERC highlights the urgent need to ensure the UK’s R&I sector can withstand sudden or seismic changes.

Ensuring capacity to weather a post-Horizon Europe landscape will inevitably prioritise the availability of research funding, but also needs to consider the loss of collaborative partnerships and influence built over years of joint research projects. The ripple effect of Brexit on Britain’s soft power has already been felt politically and economically. Failure to protect the UK’s status as a research leader risks not only reputational damage, but also undermines that leadership role to emerging R&I nations.

The UK’s International Education Strategy set a target of increasing the number of international students in the UK to at least 600,000 by 2030 and the value of education exports to £35 billion per year by 2030. Remarkably, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency indicate that UK higher education providers reached that target in 2020/21, hosting 605,130 international students – due in no small part to the reintroduction of post-graduation work rights for the 2020/21 academic year.

Maintaining this success will be complicated by several factors. Legal and financial barriers to entry, inflated cost of living prices, and concerns over post-study work and residency rights all pose risks to the UK’s status as a leading destination for international students.

Following the UK’s formal exit from the European Union and the Erasmus+ programme, EU-domiciled students became subject to the same higher level of tuition fees as other international students. This contributed to a drop of more than 50% in the numbers of EU students accepting places on undergraduate courses in the UK, from 22,000 in 2020 to 9,800 in 2021. A long-term healthy intake of international students will require maintaining current levels from non-EU countries, squaring the Brexit circle for EU students previously free to study in the UK, or a combination of both.

While the government’s Turing Scheme seeks to replace Erasmus+ and broaden opportunities for UK students to go on international study or work placements, the ‘one way’ direction of the scheme fails to address the issue of access to UK study for international students. Instead, the sense is that of barriers to study being erected – or at the very least – foundations being laid in recent statements from the Home Secretary, including a wish to ‘substantially reduce the number of students and work visas’.

In an October briefing, Universities UK urged the government not to U-turn on their pledge to grow international student numbers and ‘reaffirm the centrality of international students and their dependents to their own plans for the economic future of the UK’.

Vivienne Stern MBE, CEO of Universities UK, said:

‘The fact that so many international students chose to study in the UK is a real success story, and the UK benefits in many ways from hosting them. International students contribute to the UK’s global connections in trade, politics and in research, and they make an enormous economic contribution too.’

The Role of UKRI

With the looming spectre of ‘Austerity 2.0’, efforts to build resilience will have to be matched with the ability to demonstrate value and contribute to economic growth.

Published in March 2022, the UKRI Strategy 2022 to 2027 recognises the need to build resilience and sets out several overarching actions to achieve this. UKRI describes resilience necessary for the UK research and innovation system to have ‘the capability, flexibility and capacity to withstand shocks and deliver long-term goals, and the agility to pivot to capture new opportunities and to take risks’.

The Strategy also aligns with several government policies and strategies, including the Research and Development (R&D) Roadmap, Innovation Strategy and the R&D People and Culture Strategy.

UKRI pledges to ‘increase agility and responsiveness’ and will work closely with UK and devolved governments and other funders using a ‘combination of investment, policies and convening power’ to improve the financial resilience of the UK’s research and innovation system.

Balancing Budgets or Going for Broke?

The recent economic crash and a renewed squeeze on government spending may put the 2021 pledge to increase public investment in R&D by up to £20 billion by 2024 to 2025 in Treasury crosshairs. A strong sector voice in future policymaking and strategic decisions will be essential in securing political and economic wins for UK research in the current environment.

That the UK remains a world leader in discovery-led research is testament to the skills, experience and current resilience of the sector, despite years of political turbulence and economic uncertainty.

Building an even more resilient UK research sector equipped and prepared for another period of adverse conditions is essential. It will require meaningful action and genuine intent from government coupled with the research sector leveraging every tool at its disposal to ensure the UK retains its world-leading status.

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