Two-time minister for universities and now a prominent HE advocate on the backbenches, Conservative MP Chris Skidmore could claim to be the man in parliament with the best understanding of the university sector. As a minister, he was keen to talk-up the contribution universities make to society. As a backbencher, whether as an advisor to the UPP Foundation’s civic universities agenda or as co-chair a Higher Education Commission levelling-up enquiry, he is keen that government and university local development strategies align.
Why does he think the research funding agencies need a shake-up? Why are universities at a “crossroads”? And what does he hope the newly-released Knowledge Exchange Framework could mean for universities?
On why universities are at the crossroads:
I think we’re at a crossroads when it comes to the footprint of universities. We’ve seen the model of higher education change from rather a static one in terms of autonomy and delivery of qualifications. In the past two decades, following the introduction of fees, the relationship between government and society has changed.
On government involvement with civic universities:
There is plenty of excellent good [civic] practice out there, so much so that there’s quite a lot of duplication. There is a case for a wider networked approach on core themes, and it might be the responsibility of the government to deliver that, it might be the responsibility of them so admission groups to help achieve that.
On the review of post-18 education:
As part of the civic mission, I’m very keen to make sure that universities don’t see the retraining and re-skilling programme as something that’s just going to be done in the FE sector… Universities need to be actively participating, engaging those learners rather than waiting for those learners to come to them. I think that’s been one of the great faults I’ve seen in the HE model; it has a sort of passive ability to act.
On closing courses:
Every university can’t continue to be universal, to offer every subject. And with that comes an opportunity to build up a USP. I think universities need to demonstrate a focus on courses where they will be nationally leading and then develop consortia and networked approaches to those subjects.
On how funders can support the civic mission:
I’d like to see funding operators link to those measurements. With REF 27, we should look again at what we need to achieve when it comes to social impact. How you measure the impact of large amounts of research at the moment is unquantifiable in the REF, such as community-based research, healthcare-based research. And yet universities can’t access research funding because they’re not able to be measured.
On research budgets:
The landscape of research funding in this country is just far too complex. There are too many little pots of money, with too many institutions competing and too many institutions losing out on the funding, missing out on setting up research opportunities. If we could be more flexible, give more money out over a long period and we could grow these opportunities, particularly in areas where we need to level up research funding. We’ve got to end the problem we have at the moment with existing research grants that need to be funded at full economic costs rather than 80%.
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