HEFCE’s growing portfolio of data maps throw areas of research excellence into sharp relief. This means they also reveal great opportunities for public and private sectors.


By Alex Herbert
HEFCE Senior Higher Education Policy Adviser
First published on the HEFCE Blog

Navigating research excellence – a guide for universities and business

Recently HEFCE published a series of maps showing the research capacity and quality of institutions across England by subject area, based on the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014.

This is a timely publication, as it comes on the back of the Productivity Plan, which sets out the Government’s intention to work with universities, cities, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and business to map the strengths of different regions through a series of science and innovation audits. 

Pinpointing excellence

The maps are intended to provide a new, powerful way to build on different regions’ strengths, and to make the most of the economic impact from the UK’s research base.

At HEFCE, we are committed to funding excellence wherever it is found. The maps show that (while there is clear concentration), excellent and impactful research is found throughout the higher education sector and across England.

The Research Excellence Framework provides the evidence that drives funding to wherever excellence is found. This means it also reveals opportunities for productivity gain in public and private sectors.

Funding research that is rated as high quality – ‘QR funding’ –  underpins the success of this process, and the Government’s plan reflects the importance of HEFCE’s role through its commitment to the dual support system in research.

Local and regional collaborations

The maps show that distribution of excellence across all subjects is broad-based, but with a clear concentration of power in London and the South East, and major regional hubs, such as in the North West and in the South West.

However, if we look at the maps at a more granular level, by LEP and by discipline, we can see that there are plenty of pockets of research power that may present opportunities for local and regional collaborations.

In Leicestershire and Leeds, research in the Arts is strong for example. In clinical subjects, there are opportunities beyond London, Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire, particularly in the North East and the West of England. In engineering, Solent has 6.7 per cent of the UK’s research power in engineering.

Clearly there are also capacity gaps and these maps could be used to identify areas where further enabling activity might be needed, particularly when looked at alongside HEFCE’s other mapping of areas such as local SME characteristics.

Helping universities and their partners

Indeed, HEFCE is producing a series of maps with a view to explaining the different attributes of universities and research that may be helpful to universities and their partners – including businesses of various sizes and local economic partners such as Local Enterprise Partnerships and Combined Authorities.

These maps may help universities describe their strengths so as to stimulate partnerships of mutual value, and make cases for investment (such as to Local Growth Funds), including supporting growth, innovation and productivity. We have also published some maps, notably the SME-characteristics maps, which can help universities find partners for further collaborations.

The maps may be particularly helpful to LEPs and Combined Authorities in identifying research centres of excellence in their area to nurture. They will also help them to identify centres of excellence across the country that may be able to help industrial or technological sector strengths in their location.

We are working with the National Centre for Universities and Business and Innovate UK to develop the Smart Specialisation Hub for Government. This will help match local and national research and innovation strengths and needs.

We also work with NCUB, Innovate UK and Government to make best use of our maps for national and local purposes.

UK Research partnership investment fund

The productivity plan reiterated the Government’s commitment to the UK Research partnership investment fund (UKRPIF) as a successful way of encouraging major collaborations and centres of research excellence across the country.

A further £400 million is available for UKRPIF until 2021. The quality of the underpinning research will still be the deciding factor in the allocation of funds to major projects, but alongside it will be an increased emphasis on local collaborations and local benefits.