In a paired down Covid19-secure Queen’s Speech ceremony this week, the Queen laid out the Government’s agenda for the next Parliamentary session and its plans to ‘unite and level up the country… and make the UK a global superpower, with a world-leading research and development environment”.

In this blog we review the key points relevant to NCUB university and business members and what this means looking ahead.

On jobs and economic recovery

  • Skills and Post-16 Education Bill

An important feature of the Prime Minister’s new parliamentary session will be the introduction of a Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. This Bill will form the legislative underpinning for the reforms set out in the Skills for Jobs White Paper, published in January this year. Few new announcements were made on the content of the Bill, however the PM made clear that it should provide “the rocket fuel we need to level up this country”.

Within this new Bill, the Office for Students (OfS) is likely to receive stronger powers to ‘take action to address low quality higher education provision’. What this means in practice is not yet clear but it is expected that the imminent consultation on the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will shed some light on the detail.

The Prime Minister outlined his vision for a radical change in skills provision in a speech last year, and promised an overhaul of the target to get 50% of young people into higher education in favour of a focus on supporting Further Education (FE) providers to deliver the right skills to the right people at the right time. The White paper included plans to increase employers’ involvement in skills courses and better tailoring provision to local needs, while also improving higher technical qualifications, introducing a Lifelong Loan Entitlement, reforming funding systems, and supporting FE providers.

The legislative measures will include:

  • Enabling a new student finance system to transform the current student loans system, which will give every adult access to a flexible loan equivalent of four years’ worth of student loans for higher-level education and training at university or college, useable at any point in their lives.
  • Giving employers a statutory role in planning publicly-funded training programmes with education providers, through a “Skills Accelerator” programme.
  • More powers granted to the Secretary of State for Education to intervene in colleges that fail to meet local needs, and to direct structural change where needed to ensure the provider improves.

In January, NCUB welcomed these plans to achieve an employer-led approach to skills but we have also long called for a national skills and talent body to be established to replace the former UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). The new Skills and Productivity Board will help to generate much needed national intelligence, analysis and advice, but will not go as far as coordinating the variety of UK skills-related initiatives or drive greater collaboration between employers and educational providers. We still believe this strategic coordination is critical to guide national and institutional approach, policy and priority.

On R&D and innovation

R&D and innovation was a strong feature in the Queen’s speech, with a clear reiteration in the background briefing notes that the Government remains committed to making the UK a sciencific superpower.

  • Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

The creation of a new UK Advanced Research and Innovation Agency, ARIA, was mentioned in the last two Queen’s Speeches and legislation was introduced in March 2021 to enable its formation.

The Bill has already gone through the scrutiny of the Public Bills Committee so this Bill is carry-over into the next Parliamentary session. While the Agency has received cross-party support, concerns have been raised over the absence of a clear framework or mission to ensure innovation is conducted in areas of national interest. There are also concerns that a limited budget could dilute the Agency’s research potential and that the Agency will not be subject to the same public scrutiny as other public bodies. Nonetheless, the Agency has broad support and its commitment to high-risk, high-reward innovation aims to secure the UK’s role as a scientific superpower.

  • Developing the Life Sciences sector

Although there is no legislation attached, life sciences is an area where the Government is taking a special interest, noting that the Life Sciences sector was responsible for £17 billion of value add in 2018, 9 per cent of the total value-add from manufacturing in the UK and plays a special role in the levelling up agenda with industry spread across the breadth of the UK. The Life Sciences Strategy expected later this year is likely to build upon the strengths in the current system to “partner with industry, the NHS and academia to ensure the UK continues to lead the world in scientific innovation”.

  • Innovation Strategy

The much-anticipated Innovation Strategy, designed to set out the Government’s plans “to inspire, facilitate and unleash innovation across the UK” was again mentioned in the Queen’s speech and is due to be published this summer. A recent panel discussion held by the Department for Business Energy and Innovation (BEIS) Secretary of State Kwasi Kwarteng suggested that the Strategy will focus on leveraging more private R&D and innovation spend into the UK.

On the environment

  • Environment Bill

The Environment Bill is another bill that has been carried over to complete its passage in the next session. The Environment Bill will set legally binding environmental targets, around how the UK intends to lead on climate change, ahead of the international COP26 Summit in Glasgow later this year. Campaigners’ concerns with the Bill have been widely documented, calling for greater action on air pollution, with many arguing that its delay sends the wrong message ahead of COP26. For businesses and universities, it is hoped that new legislation and leadership ambitions on this topic will help to galvanise more R&D and innovation spending and focus.

On higher education

  • Freedom of speech in HE Bill

In February the Government published a new policy paper, which proposed the ways in which they want to strengthen freedom of speech and academic freedom in higher education in England, including extending this to student’s unions. For the first time, the new Bill will legislate the requirement for all new Office for Students (OfS) HE registrants to promote free speech and academic freedom and will grant powers to the OfS to investigate and impose sanctions on alleged breaches. Student’s unions are not currently regulated by the OfS but instead by the Charity Commission. Therefore, it is unclear how the new powers granted would work in relation to SUs.

On defence

  • Defence spending and the Integrated Review

The £24bn uplift in defence spending promised in the March Budget includes a significant amount of research and development spend intended to “drive innovation in game-changing technologies”. As we wrote in our response to the Review earlier this year, the Integrated Review signals that the Government recognises the importance of both innovation and innovation adoption and it shows an understanding of the interconnected network that forms the UK’s strengths and opportunities in research and innovation.

On places

  • Levelling Up White Paper

Though not a Bill, the Queen reiterated the Government’s commitment to ‘levelling up’ which is likely to materialise in the form of  a ‘Levelling Up’ white paper later this year.  The White paper is expected to set out new policy interventions that are aimed at improving livelihoods and opportunity in all parts of the UK, building on the strengths that different places have. The relationship between the White Paper and the expected R&D Places Strategy is not yet clear.

Finally, to secure the UK’s strength post withdrawal from the EU, the Queen announced the Government’s plans will include:

  • A Professional Qualifications Bill designed to help employers access professionals in areas where there may be workforce shortages in the UK. The new legislation will provide a framework to recognise professional qualifications from across the world to allow the UK to continue to ‘attract the best and brightest from around the world’ such as in medicine, nursing, architecture and teaching.
  • A Subsidy control Bill to establish a bespoke UK- wide subsidy control regime following a recent consultation (see NCUB’s response to the consultation). In the consultation, the Government proposed a “light touch approach to low-risk or low-value subsidies” and is meant to encourage long-term investment decisions by avoiding undue bureaucracy.
  • A Procurement Bill that will consolidate and streamline the 350+ EU regulations and make our procurement regime quicker, simpler and easier to use, allowing more freedom for suppliers and the public sector to innovate and work in partnership with the private sector.
  • National Insurance Contributions Bill that will help deliver on the Government’s commitment to establish eight new Freeports in England. The Freeports were announced in the last Budget and it is hoped they will drive regeneration by bringing investment, trade and jobs through simplified planning rules that ministers have said will serve as hubs for high-value manufacturing and innovation. Discussions are ongoing with the devolved administrations to ensure these benefits are felt UK-wide.

For the Prime Minister, 2021 will be a significant year as he seeks to deliver on many of the promises made within the 2019 Manifesto but which were delayed last year due to Covid.

In order to solidify the UK’s world-leading position as a welcoming place for businesses to come and innovate, and to realise the commitment to increasing total UK R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, science, research and innovation need to be at the centre of tackling the major challenges of our nation’s recovery. The establishment of ARIA, skills guarantees, the Subsidy Control Bill and many of the targets contained within the Environment Bill and Freeports will go some way to creating a system that can foster and encourage companies that wish to come and invest in R&D and innovation in the UK.

For now, we can look ahead to the Innovation Strategy, due to be published this summer, which is expected to set out just how the Government intends to encourage and incentivise UK businesses to invest more in R&D and innovation.