Last week, Research England published further details on funding for the English HE sector. Hamish McAlpine (Head of KE Data & Evidence, Research England) takes us through the details.

When I joined the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in 2017, our Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) stood at £160m. Whilst this is not an insignificant amount, today’s announcement of £250m of HEIF, plus an additional £44m of funding for knowledge exchange represents an increase of 85% on 2017 levels. And that’s before you take into account over £110m of Connecting Capability Fund (CCF) project and follow-on funding. So – plenty of big numbers and acronyms. And who in the higher education sector doesn’t love those? But what all this money is going to achieve – in terms of economic, social and cultural benefits – is the important bit. So here I’ve broken down not just what these various pots of money are, but what they are intended to support.

First up – HEIF. This is maintained at £250m – £230m via formula and £20m via our Research England Development (RED) fund – and supports a broad range of interactions between academia and external partners – particularly with businesses, but also with the public and third sectors, communities and individuals. HEIF is distributed based on a formula, with data derived from HE-BCI, the OfS finance record, and Innovate UK. Last July we published our HEIF policy and priorities, and whilst the Industrial Strategy has evolved and we now have the Innovation Strategy, R&D roadmap and people & culture strategy (not to mention the forthcoming Levelling-up white paper), the priorities remain similar and are reflected well in our guidance letter from BEIS this year, which states that “HEIF should support delivery of key Government priorities from the R&D roadmap and Building Back Better…” and also that BEIS welcomes the “increased attention to the contribution that Research England can make to our levelling up agenda throughout your funding and the development of university research and knowledge exchange, including through your leadership of UKRI’s place strategy work.” Some examples of how universities are delivering on these topics can be seen in the ‘Celebrating the Higher Education Innovation Fund’ video here.

Secondly – there are a number of additional, one-off element for the current 2021-22 academic year, for two broad purposes: i) strengthening university capacity and ii) strengthening existing partnerships and creating new ones to rebuild society as we recover from the worst effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although there are some encouraging signs that KE activity has been reasonably resilient, there is no doubt that the pandemic and consequent lockdowns and other restrictions have been hugely damaging to many sectors of the economy, and also to Universities’ local communities. I’ve been inspired by the stories of how universities have responded to the pandemic, in many cases pivoting their offerings to help with acute challenges, such as the production of PPE, or increasing support to micro and SME businesses. But the scars of the past 18 months have not fully healed, and I expect the full effects to take years to fully play out. Therefore, Research England have made available £22m (distributed as a 10% uplift to those in receipt of a main HEIF allocation) to enable:

  • Rapid and agile KE contributions: to enable additional KE activity for providers in receipt of HEIF to meet Covid-19 challenges and work with partners to facilitate recovery (£10m)
  • Strengthening existing and new partnership working, linked to the aims of our Connecting Capability Fund – to maintain momentum on collaborations between universities for the benefit of their external partners (£12m).

The third element of this additional package of support is designed to increase the incentive for those constrained by the HEIF ‘top cap’ (£10m). To maintain the diversity of our funding, HEIF has an upper limit to what a single institution can receive. For those who are constrained by this cap, there is a supplement, but this supplement has remained the same over the years, even as the main HEIF amount has increased. This new money will hopefully further incentivise and reward those large, high performing institutions who undertake so much KE, and in many cases have world-class research commercialisation performance (particularly in life sciences, which has proved so vital to our Covid-19 response) but also in creating the high-tech, high-growth companies of tomorrow, like Yasa motors, an Oxford spinout recently acquired by Mercedes Benz.

At the other end of the spectrum in terms of size (but not of importance!) we have also made available new KE funding for typically smaller or specialist institutions that are eligible for (but not currently in receipt of) HEIF, because the scale of their activity currently falls below the HEIF threshold. I’ve seen firsthand the unique and interesting partnerships possible with these institutions, such as the inspiring partnership between the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and the My Dementia Improvement Network, which aims to deliver improve the experience of dementia patients in hospital. Research England will be working in partnership with KTN (Knowledge Transfer Network) to provide a supportive programme to institutions in this group to strengthen existing partnerships and create new ones, to increase the sector’s overall contribution to building back better.

Finally, there is an additional £6m for our RED fund to increase the number of projects that we can fund, and to target new priorities in the Innovation strategy and R&D People and Culture strategy and forthcoming Levelling-up whitepaper.

Whilst these additional allocations are for the current academic year only (due to an imminent spending review), we hope that these meaningful sums will enable institutions of all types and sizes to work with partners to maximize their contributions to building back better – economically, socially, and culturally.