It feels like this is becoming a rather hackneyed phrase, but 2022 truly has been an eventful year.
The world stopped, briefly, to mark the passing of HM Queen Elizabeth II – bringing to a close the second Elizabethan Era. As this great symbol of solidity and stability passed from the front pages to the history books, the UK political backdrop did its best to provide a jarring contrast. Three Prime Ministers and four Chancellors in one year, meant at times an apparent revolving door for ministers coming in and out of the Cabinet Room, marching to the regular beat of scandal and drama.
Our shores have also been battered by successive waves of economic shocks. Global supply chain disruptions following the pandemic, fiercely exacerbated by the War in Ukraine, have driven us into a period of sustained double-digit inflation, hitting businesses and households alike. The market reaction to the ill-fated ‘mini budget’ in September hit the value of the pound while raising the cost of government borrowing. Ongoing uncertainties around the UK’s future relationship with the EU continue to dampen investor confidence, while new barriers with EU nations have made it harder and more expensive for some UK industries to do business and recruit the staff they need.
A continued focus on research, innovation and skills
But if we look beyond the bigger political and economic headlines from the year, we continue to see strong signals of how important the research, innovation and skills roles of universities and businesses are to the UK’s national strengths and future prospects.
Earlier this month, NCUB published the eighth edition of our annual State of the Relationship report. This looked at data from 2020/21 – the first full year of the COVID-19 pandemic – and revealed the remarkable resilience of university-business collaborations. University commercialisation activities were stronger than ever and overall levels of collaboration only dropped by 2%. This is at a time when much of the economy was frozen by strong public health measures and curbs. It shows how important university-business partnerships are, even – some would arguably especially – during times of crisis and uncertainty.
The long-awaited results from the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise were published in May. This brought good news for the UK research system. For the first time, the exercise considered all staff with major significant responsibility for research, helping to build an even more comprehensive picture of the breadth of university research activities across the UK. It also saw an even greater emphasis on the impact of universities’ research – increasing the weighting from 20% to 25% compared with the last exercise. The results demonstrate that UK research remains globally significant – with 84% of all assessed activity judged as world-leading or internationally excellent, with exceptional breadth in our areas of disciplinary strength. Through impact case studies, the exercise also shone a light on the treasure trove of societal and economic outcomes that UK research capabilities are delivering, in partnership with businesses and others.
This year also saw the UK Government confirming, at the November Autumn Statement, their previous Spending Review commitment to increase public spending on R&D to £20 billion a year by 2024/25. This was hugely welcome news and within the context of a series of tough tax and spending choices to reduce a £54 billion ‘black hole’ in the public finances. This showed that the UK Government continues to position research and innovation at the heart of their economic plan, recognising the critical role it plays in driving up productivity, creating wealth and high-quality jobs, and in solving the major societal challenges the UK, and the world, faces.
Many of us at NCUB are looking forward to taking a short rest over the festive period, and while one eye will be on brandy and mince pies, the other will be looking forward to what 2023 will have in store.
While the Autumn Statement had a positive headline for UK R&D, universities and businesses are still facing a series of challenging headwinds. Our members and stakeholders will be looking for clarity from the UK Government on our future relationship with the EU, including the Horizon Europe programme. UK researchers and businesses have long made the case for accessing not just the €100 billion funding pot, but the network of international collaborations that the EU programme supports across a range of critical societal and economic challenges.
The UK is also beginning the transition away from EU Structural and Investment Funding towards the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund. The EU funds have been important fuel for powering UK universities’ regional development activities and have been particularly important in supporting collaboration with local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Universities have the potential to be the engine rooms for Levelling Up – and much of the infrastructure is already there. In 2023 we must develop a clear plan for how to realise that potential.
As the UK’s economic strategy develops, there is a broader opportunity to align this explicitly to the major societal and economic challenges that the UK and the world face. Universities and businesses have an impressive array of expertise and capabilities that can help address climate change, energy security, emerging health threats, and more – and there is a time-bound opportunity to anchor much of the global economic advantage that can come from new technological solutions and innovations to these issues here in the UK. This advantage will only be secured by continuing to support the growth of strategic collaborations between universities and business.