The atmosphere at this year’s party political conferences was charged with anticipation, as political veterans speculated that this could be the final conference before the next election. Overshadowed by events in the Middle East, Labour sought to frame their party as a government in waiting — suggesting a variety of policies with innovation and long- term growth at its heart. On the other hand, the Conservative Party surprised with a series of announcements aimed at boosting research and development (R&D) and regional growth plans.

Boosting Regional Growth and Innovation

At the Conservative Party Conference, a wave of announcements were made, targeting  local growth and innovation. Secretary of State Michelle Donelan announced the creation of a new Regional Innovation Fund (RIF) in England, allocating £48.8 million to 110 universities. This fund aims to support local innovation, commercialisation, and economic growth. Positively, the funding is flexible and providers will define what they deem to be their local and regional footprint. It’s a one year fund and can be used for capital as well as revenue, as long as the activities further economic growth or productivity.

Additionally, Science Minister George Freeman announced funding for research and innovation clusters, further boosting economic growth and addressing regional needs. The new £41 million funding pot will support 10 projects that will “boost UK economic growth and address regional needs”, with a further £7.8m top-up from private investors. This was the latest in the government’s concerted effort to grow regional innovation clusters.

These announcements create short-term opportunities for the R&D community. Potentially only a year out from an election, now is a good opportunity for universities to demonstrate how they can turn government funding into local benefits with their partners.  However, there is also need for sustained effort, commitment, and a clear plan from government on local business-university engagement for the years to come.

Labour’s Focus on Energy and Innovation

Labour’s flagship announcement centred around energy, with a commitment to introducing 10-year budgets for research and development. This move aims to shift the R&D funding model away from the current three-year cycle, boosting confidence and attracting business investments. Labour positioned innovation as a catalyst for economic growth, outlining a mission-based campaign manifesto. These commitments are outlined in Labour’s five missions for the future.

Furthermore, Labour Shadow Minister Chi Onwurah expressed the party’s intentions at a Fringe event to provide tailored support to universities, ensuring they act as engines of local growth. She said they are exploring specific policies to enhance growth in various regions based on their unique strengths and needs.

Education and Skills: A Core Agenda

Education took centre stage in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s conference speech, underscoring its importance for the Conservative party’s election pledges. A new “Advanced British Standard” to replace A Levels and T Levels was proposed, focusing on five subjects including English and Maths. As education is a devolved matter, this would apply to England only, and builds on the Prime Minister’s call for a British Baccalaureate.

In his speech, the Prime Minister criticised “rip off degrees” and supported an expansion of apprenticeships. This reflects a previous announcement by the Government to cap student numbers on “low quality” university courses in England.  The rhetoric came days after the Office for Students published the 2023 Teaching Excellence Framework results. The results show that universities meet exceptional education standards and offer outstanding teaching quality to students from all backgrounds. NCUB have consistently argued that, whilst universities are committed to continuous improvement, the policy will use data from the past to cap opportunity for the future. But what is really needed is the reverse – a better understanding of the future to inform education today.

In a parallel effort, Labour acknowledged universities for their transformative educational role and unveiled plans for a set of “new generation of colleges,” signalling their dedication to technical education and skills development aligned to local economies.

Additionally, Labour proposed the transformation of the existing Apprenticeship Levy into a Growth and Skills Levy, addressing criticisms of its rigidity. This transformation would empower businesses to allocate up to 50% of their levy contributions to non-apprenticeship training, including modular courses and functional skills, allowing them to invest in upskilling their workforce. This initiative would be overseen by the Labour envisioned Skills England.

Lastly, Starmer announced the inception of a National Wealth Fund, establishing a partnership between a Labour government and the private sector to drive infrastructure development and job creation. He reiterated his commitment to establishing Great British Energy, based in Scotland, aiming to harness domestic clean energy and capitalise on existing skillsets.

Infrastructure, Regulation, and Planning: Setting the Course

Labour outlined “once in a generation” planning reforms to accelerate R&D infrastructure building, aiming to boost business investment in the UK. Additionally, Shadow Science Minister Peter Kyle announced Labour would take a progressive approach to regulating emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, indicating their commitment to fostering innovation.

Looking Ahead: The Road Beyond the Conferences

As the buzz of the party conferences subsides, it was evident that university funding isn’t a top concern for voters and neither party was committed to tackling the issue of growing funding pressures in universities. Issues like the cost of living, healthcare, and the economy will take precedence. Therefore, the future for universities dealing with significant deficits and fiscal constraints remains uncertain, with no clear consensus on the way forward.

Though both parties emphasise the importance of universities and innovation in the drive for economic growth, the practical implementation and sustained support are yet to be seen. NCUB will continue to make the case that a thriving research and innovation system is fundamental for the UK’s economic growth and future prosperity. Continued government support for collaboration between universities and businesses will drive the innovations and skills needed for a prosperous future. Read more about NCUB’s position ahead of November’s Autumn statement. Top of Form