The government should continue “significant public funding” for research on global challenges in the wake of cuts to the Official Development Assistance funds earlier this year, which damaged the international reputation of the UK, a report prepared by universities has argued.
The report, written by Universities UK International (UUKi), was developed for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
It outlines several recommendations: not only that BEIS should continue to fund the work supported by ODA monies, but that it should commit to legally guaranteed multi-year settlements.
The remark follows stinging sectoral criticism of the government decision to cut ODA funds at short notice, leaving ongoing international projects suddenly without cash. “The impact of mid-project grant terminations or cuts on LMIC (low- and middle-income countries) partners is acute,” the UUKi report said. “The UK’s reputation as a trusted partner is severely undermined by such actions.”
One of our African partners […] reported that since the cuts in UK ODA funding […] they are increasingly regarding China as their country of choice
– University of Sheffield, UUKi report
UKRI announced in March that its ODA allocation for 2021/22 had been nearly halved to £125m – leaving a £120m shortfall – warning it was unlikely to fund the majority of awards beyond the end of July. UUK attacked the cuts at the time, saying it would damage the “international standing” of UK HE and stymie vital research. The cuts were inspired by the government desire to reduce overseas aid spending in response to its Covid finances.
The UUKi report – The Impact of Official Development Assistance Funding – draws on surveys and comments from representatives from 59 universities in the UK, including 46 from England, two from Northern Ireland, seven from Scotland and three from Wales.
The University of Sheffield said the sudden cuts caused the UK “reputational damage”.
“One of our African partners […] reported that since the cuts in UK ODA funding (leading to huge disruption on various projects that they are involved in), they are increasingly regarding China as their country of choice for research partnerships now,” the University of Sheffield warned.
Loughborough University said the ODA funds helped “enhance UK visibility within other governments and bodies of influence”.
The report also suggests funds should include “dedicated support” for universities to build career development opportunities for researchers in low- and middle-income countries. Universities also want the amount of bureaucracy put upon institutions and researchers in other countries reduced to achieve “equitable partnerships”.
The institutions surveyed also sought more flexible bureaucratic rules from any new funds. Heriot-Watt University said: “For a UK institution to be the required leader of a project, the other partners must inevitably comply with our requirements. While there is a level of equality among researchers, administrative processes prevent truly equitable institutional relationships.”
The Global Challenges Research Fund and Newton Fund were among those affected. The funds were consequential to a “strategic shift” in the way universities approached research and internationalism, the report argued.
Ninety-six per cent of universities polled established new or more expansive, long-lasting institutional networks and 94% embedded ODA priorities, such as the United Nations sustainable development goals, in their strategies, the survey found. Seventy-one per cent of universities polled said ODA money made them more globally competitive in research.
Universities tended to agree that the best aspect of ODA was “funding stability”, which helped them “develop meaningful long-term strategies”.