Prince Charles delivered a bumper “Queen’s Speech” at last week’s state opening of parliament. It contained 38 bills, including a prominent spotlight on higher education and gearing the UK’s legal and regulatory landscape to promote growth and innovation.

The Queen’s speech, taken as a whole, will be significant in shaping the skills, research and innovation landscape in years to come. Here are our thoughts about what will affect our members most and where we will be paying closer attention in the year ahead.

UK R&D and innovation

After confirming reforms to R&D tax credits, promises to increase R&D spend to £20 billion by 2024/25 and establishing the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), the Queen’s Speech announced legislative changes that will have implications for the UK’s R&D sector in the form of several sector-specific programmes aimed at reducing unnecessary burden and encouraging private sector investment in innovation.

  • Among the government’s plans for R&D is a Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill (applies to all of the UK except Scotland), which Prince Charles said would “unlock the potential of new technologies to promote sustainable and efficient farming and food production”. In the detail is a promise that the Bill will remove “unnecessary barriers inherited from the EU” that will help encourage agri-food research and innovation by reducing time and cost of gene editing trials. Whilst a welcome introduction for bioscientists in the UK, some have suggested the bill does not go far enough to meet the urgent needs of plant and animal research.
  • The Government has pledged to enshrine the 12 national missions of Levelling Up outlined in its white paper, in the proposed Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. The missions include increasing productivity, devolution deals and investment in public transport and education. In our response to the White Paper, NCUB welcomed the importance given to research and innovation in tackling regional inequality, particularly the recognition of the contribution that universities and businesses make across the UK. The announcement of three ‘Innovation Accelerators’, intended to shore up localised growth of clusters of academia and industry is particularly noteworthy as part of this bill.
  • Affecting both industry and universities alike but aimed specifically at “simplifying the rules around research”, the proposed Data Reform Bill will modify the UK’s data laws (including GDPR and Data protection) after its exit from the EU, with a focus on reducing barriers and creating greater flexibility. The government said the Data Reform Bill will clarify the legal basis for how data can be re-used for research and innovation, as well as introduce an exhaustive list of activities where data can be more easily accessed to help companies innovate. Whilst a welcome reform, there are risks that the UK’s new data protection regime does not meet the standards of the EU’s GDPR, leading to increased administrative burden and costs for businesses when transferring data to and from the EEA.
  • Other pledges with implications for sector-specific innovation include a new Energy Bill aimed at creating a “pro-innovation regulatory environment for fusion energy” and a promise to enable innovation in transport across the UK through a new Transport Bill. The Energy Bill will provide new financing models for low-carbon hydrogen and carbon capture technology, as well as introduce measures announced in the Energy Security Strategy, including the construction of more nuclear power stations and offshore energy developments. Critics of the Bill say it is unclear the extent to which the Bill will help reduce energy demand or help consumers with energy price increases. Addressing this is vital if the UK is to develop a secure, low carbon energy system by 2050.

Reforming the Higher Education landscape

Higher education was firmly in the spotlight this year with a series of initiatives aimed at reforming the education sector.

  • The government confirmed there will be a new Higher Education Bill, to facilitate the introduction of the government’s Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) scheme, the groundwork for which was laid in the recently passed Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022. There is little else known about the contents of the HE Bill, but the government may use this as an opportunity to turn into primary legislation some of their proposals for wider HE reform – such as the minimum eligibility requirements (MERs). In our response to the LLE consultation, NCUB emphasised the need to support engagement between businesses, colleges and universities and repeated our recommendation for the establishment of a replacement to the UK Skills and Employment Commission.
  • A Schools Bill will implement some of the changes put forward in the Schools White Paper published in March 2022 and will apply to England and Wales only. The Bill features provisions to support the government’s central ambition to spread opportunity and level up the UK. Although not directly relevant to HE, substantial changes at the primary and secondary level typically have longer term knock-on effects at post-16 level. A second stage consultation is expected in Spring 2022.
  • And finally, the controversial Higher Education (Freedom of speech) Bill is making its second appearance in a Queen’s speech, after being included in last year’s state opening. It aims to extend and strengthen existing legislation to uphold freedom of speech and academic freedom in registered higher education providers and students’ unions. It will also bolster the role of the Office for Students (OfS) in investigating concerns around free speech on campus, as well as introduce a new ombudsman or ‘free speech champion’ charged with monitoring cases.

Business investment and innovation

A number of bills were introduced which could open doors for smaller businesses and enhance overall economic productivity. Intended to cut red tape, increase efficiency, enable more and longer-term investment, and boost innovation and growth opportunities for businesses, the following legislative proposals could have an impact. However, they need to be considered in the context of rising costs for many businesses as well as substantial tax hikes.

  • The UK Infrastructure Bank (UKIB) was launched in June 2021, tasked with accelerating investment into infrastructure projects, cutting emissions, ‘green’ innovation and levelling up every part of the UK. This parliament year, the government will introduce the Infrastructure Bank Bill, to establish the UKIB as a statutory body overseeing £22 billion in investment capacity.
  • A Public Procurement Bill (applicable to all of the UK with the exception of Scotland), first announced in the 2021 Queen’s Speech, has been brought forward in the coming session. The Bill will aim to reform the procurement regime–which currently reflects EU law– to make it more innovative, specific to the UK, and less bureaucratic. It is also hoped that unlocking the £300 billion spent on public procurement every year will open up opportunities for new entrants such as small businesses and voluntary, charitable and social enterprises, enabling them to compete for public contracts.
  • The Brexit Freedoms Bill will be accompanied by a drive to reform, repeal and replace EU law, a move it said would cut £1 billion of red tape for UK businesses and remove environmental restrictions that can delay or prevent infrastructure jobs.
  • The draft Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill is aimed at promoting competition, strengthening consumer rights and protecting households and businesses through, for example, bolstering the Competition and Markets Authority, and establishing the Digital Markets Unit (DMU) in statutory law. This follows on from a recent response from government to their consultation proposals to create new competition rules for digital markets, aimed at opening up opportunities for smaller technology firms.
  • A UK wide Financial Services and Markets Bill is expected to refresh and reform the post-Brexit financial services regulatory regime and create an open, green, and innovative financial sector. In particular, the draft legislation will bring into law major reforms to overhaul Solvency II rules aimed at freeing up more than £10 billion of UK in the insurance industry, allowing insurance companies to invest in innovative investment projects and long-term growth projects such as renewable energy.

Looking ahead

As always, the devil will lie in the detail of the bills. Proposed strategies and legislation must focus on improving the R&D landscape and encouraging private R&D investment if the UK is serious about becoming a science superpower. This series of legislation has the potential to go some way towards strengthening this ambition, particularly by expanding lifelong learning and unlocking investment and innovation to build a strong R&D environment. As always however, they need to be considered alongside other factors, such as rapidly rising costs and planned tax hikes. NCUB will continue to scrutinise how these proposed legislative changes will affect our members, and their collaboration, over the coming year.