Higher education should be ‘less barbed’ with ministers, Sweeney suggests

Research England executive chair David Sweeney said bureaucracy had delivered results and helped “focus the mind”

The higher education sector should be “less barbed” in discussions with government ministers or risk its communications falling on deaf ears, the head of Research England has said. 

Asked how important the university civic agenda was in positioning the HE sector alongside government priorities, the executive chair of Research England said the best way to improve the relationship with ministers was to use more diplomatic language.

David Sweeney was speaking at the Civic University Network 2021 digital conference at Sheffield Hallam University, the hosts of the programme.

Sweeney told delegates: “The big problem is, HE primarily engages with government by deploying criticism as the main tool”. 

He said he didn’t want “to stop anyone from saying what they think”, but warned the sector that ministers “don’t appreciate” the criticism, which can “hinder them from looking at some other things you say”.

The long-time public servant said he accepted that was “very difficult when the government is doing some very challenging things around freedom of speech, to put it mildly”, but urged the sector to “put that to one side, and try and build a relationship”. 

Said Sweeney: “Perhaps it’s unfortunate that a lot of relationships with government do depend on personal contacts, and a lot of those personal contacts have broken down. 

“So I think we might have to just bite our tongue sometimes, or accept that we’ve got to be less barbed in what we say, in order to buy some space. I’m trying not to say we shouldn’t stand up for what we believe, but there are ways of standing up for what we believe and ways of not.” 

Bureaucracy ‘does deliver’

Sweeney was on a panel with senior leaders to discuss the importance of the civic university network in place-based strategy.

He was joined by Dame Nancy Rothwell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, Mary Stuart, the vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln, Richard Calvert, the deputy-vice-chancellor at Sheffield Hallam and Dr Omar Khan, the director of the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO). 

Reflecting on the government’s decision to cut Official Development Assistance funding, resulting in a multi-million-pound cut to university research, Sweeney said universities should try to find new ways to work with ministers in England. “Particularly, we shouldn’t get into the trap of trashing other agendas or unduly challenging them,” he continued. 

Referring to Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, Sweeney said it was clear the government sought to see universities “as global actors”.

He challenged university leaders to “understand how we can work best with the things that are on a roll and manage the things that are not on a roll”, adding: “Global Britain is important. We shouldn’t be encouraging our universities to play that directly off against a civic and local agenda.”

Sweeney also said he thought a “bit of bureaucracy often does deliver”. He and his counterparts in the UK Research and Innovation councils and the Office for Students are under instructions from ministers to reduce bureaucracy. Sweeney said he felt oversight got “pushback” from vice-chancellors, but thought accountancy measures help “concentrate the mind”. 

Devolution of R&D spending

The Research England chief said he did not presently support the devolution of more research and development funding because some regions of England are not well-placed to use funding effectively. 

The experienced public servant warned that millions of pounds of devolved funding – such as the Regional Development Agencies (RDA) and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) – had been in place for years but had seemingly not ‘levelled up’ the country. 

“The perception, I’m certainly not going to say this is fully justified, but the perception is that money that was devolved didn’t get spent effectively,” he summarised. 

Dame Nancy said in her view, “there’s more scope” for devolved innovation funding – particularly in areas like Teesside, South Wales and Cumbria that had traditionally received less – but warned, “spreading of R&D funds will not alone lead to levelling up”. 

She said policymakers had to be clear about “the payback… beyond spreading out some money”, adding: “Just saying we’re going to carve up the research funding and give it to regions, I think will be disastrous”. 

Dame Nancy used the panel to announce the news that the five universities in Greater Manchester were developing a Civic University Agreement with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. She said universities should aspire to work more closely with local government but “cannot be the sole solution to all of the societal problems”.

“There are times when we need to push back and say it’s just not within our gift to solve all aspects of educational differences of poverty, of inequalities of economic growth, although we can help to contribute to alleviating them,” she elaborated.

Read more: The Higher Education Commission issues public call for evidence

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