‘Level up’ research funding for universities in deprived places, says MillionPlus

MillionPlus universities could help drive the levelling up agenda, but only if ministers “rebalance” research funding

To level up the UK, the government should ensure vital research funding reaches beyond the Russell Group to post-92 “modern” universities, a mission group of higher education institutions has argued.

The group of 22 universities stressed the scale of its contribution to the UK research and business sectors in a report published today (4 October) ahead of the comprehensive spending review later this month.

Many MillionPlus universities are in towns and small cities, often with higher-than-average levels of deprivation, like Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland, Luton, Wolverhampton and Preston.

The chief executive of MillionPlus, Rachel Hewitt, said these universities were a “key asset to boost innovation and economic growth in the very places that need it most”.

These “anchor” institutions could help the government achieve its “levelling up” commitment, the mission group said – but only if policymakers offer them an equitable share of public research funding, which ministers have pledged to grow to £22 billion per annum by 2024-25.

The MillionPlus report, published 4 October, argues ministers should invest more through the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), the Strength in Places Fund (SIPF) and knowledge transfer partnerships (KTPs) – and increase local accountability for research funding decisions.

On HEIF, administered by Research England, MillionPlus says the current £230m sum should grow to form a larger share of the overall research budget. Citing Research England’s own data, which shows that HEIF generates £8.30 for every £1 spent, the report argues this fund could – more so than most – generate significant economic value for local areas. The distribution of HEIF across England is more equitable, MillionPlus adds: universities in the north and midlands win a larger share of HEIF than quality-related (QR) funding, which by contrast is worth £1.75 billion.

These institutions should be recognised as a key asset to boost innovation and economic growth in the very places that need it most
– Rachel Hewitt, MillionPlus

On SIPF, administered by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the report lobbies for more funding. Nearly £188m has been distributed through SIPF to date to support collaborations between universities and businesses across Great Britain, specifically areas that suffer from regional disparities in mainstream QR funding. The Treasury should grow SIPF to replace access to the European Regional Development Funds (ERDF) – described by MillionPlus as the UK’s “principle place-based mechanism for investment”.

The panel chair of the Strength in Places Fund has said it is premature to evaluate the fledgling projects that received its investment, warning ministers the “levelling-up agenda is going to need to be very long-term”.

The group says KTPs not only give universities and business support to collaborate – but also produce a pipeline of good graduate jobs in parts of the country at the wrong end of the UK graduate ‘brain drain’. Funding these KTPs in greater numbers would be “a win-win-win for universities, graduates and local businesses”, MillionPlus says.

Meanwhile, the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) should “devolve decisions as far away from the centre as possible”, MillionPlus argues. It also wants UKRI to redesign the fund to make awards long-term, flexible and regionally bespoke – and less bureaucratically burdensome. No new announcements have emerged on the SPF since 2020, a worrying sign the scheme had lost momentum, the mission group warns. The panel chair of the SPF, Kate Barker, recently said it is too premature to evaluate the fledgling projects that received investment, warning ministers the “levelling-up agenda is going to need to be very long-term”.

Said Hewitt: “Modern universities are vital anchor institutions within their local communities and their sense of place is central to their core mission. As such they are well placed to make an enormous contribution to the government’s levelling up agenda and in the recovery from Covid-19.”

She called on the government to “re-balance the way research and development is funded and ensure that investment is spread across the country”.

“In 2019-20 modern universities provided services to more than 21,000 small and medium-sized businesses. They are hubs of support, infrastructure and translational research. As we emerge from the pandemic, these institutions should be recognised as a key asset to boost innovation and economic growth in the very places that need it most,” Hewitt added.


Read more: Skidmore’s new independent commission calls for national careers service

Related news: Research England publishes first Knowledge Exchange Framework

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