There was much in the Conservative Party manifesto to suggest that the new government is aware of the great strength of the UK’s higher education (HE) system and its strategic importance. As someone who has viewed the UK system from afar for most of my career, I consider myself reasonably objective when I contend that the UK is home to arguably the world’s strongest HE system. It is true that, when taken together, the US universities are larger, wealthier and stronger in terms of overall research outputs; but it is more a collection of strong individual or regional institutions than a national system.
In sharp contrast, the great strength of the UK HE system is that it has been shaped by a keen appreciation of the importance of institutional autonomy balanced by a set of over-arching national policy objectives, targets and incentives developed through evidence-based dialogue between the universities, government and other stakeholders.
Let’s build on this track record of successful partnership over the years ahead!
Which takes me to my specific requests of our new government. As a physician, it possibly comes as no surprise that my first request is primum non nocere (first, do no harm). The UK’s higher education and research system is a jewel in the national crown. The first question when any policy intervention is being considered should be ‘will it, in any way, compromise our already successful system?’ A particular concern here is that certain recommendations of the Augar Review will be cherry-picked – thereby threatening the financial stability of the sector and its ability to deliver on important national objectives in widening participation and economic development.
My second request pertains to the global competition for talent. The HE sector was greatly heartened by the pre-election acknowledgement that the UK needs a fit-for-purpose immigration policy that is welcoming to both international students and researchers, including those EU citizens already resident in the UK. The UK has always been a magnet for top talent from across the globe. The competition for such talent is more intense than ever before and we must ensure that our institutional and national offer is the very best there is. My plea is that we implement this much-needed immigration reform as a matter of urgency.
The competition for [global] talent is more intense than ever before, and we must ensure that our institutional and national offer is the very best there is
And, finally, to our research and innovation ecosystem. The UK has many attractions for both UK and international researchers. The traditional strengths of the Research Councils, Research England and Innovate UK have been bolstered by the creation of UKRI. The establishment of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, in particular, has fundamentally changed the relationship between the UK’s universities and industry. In the Bristol city/region, as an example, these investments are catalysing exciting new university-industry partnerships in key sectors such as aerospace, digital engineering, cybersecurity, creative technologies, and quantum technologies that should help embed, scale and evolve these industries in the region over future decades.
The cloud on the horizon is, of course, our continued participation in the EU research and innovation ecosystem. Brexit is getting done but let’s not throw the baby out unnecessarily with the bath water. Research is one area where both sides recognise the win-win of a strong ongoing partnership.
Therefore, my third request of our new government is that research and innovation is included in any first phase agreement. Such a move would be unequivocally in the national interest and could, indeed, set a positive tone for subsequent negotiations.
Professor Hugh Brady is vice-chancellor and president of the University of Bristol