Research metrics must encourage levelling up in action, says vice-chancellor

Prof Mary Stuart, the vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln, says universities like hers can uplift deprived areas – but only if metrics, funding and policies change to support them

A “place-based” approach to research and development funding is crucial if the government’s promised uplift is to engender innovation and economic activity in “left-behind” areas of the UK, a vice-chancellor has argued.

Prof Mary Stuart, the outgoing leader of the University of Lincoln, set out the importance of new metrics and better-distributed R&D funding to “levelling up” in a report co-authored with Liz Shutt, director of policy for the University of Lincoln, and the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership.

In the report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, Prof Stuart and Shutt iterated the importance of “permeable” boundaries between universities, regional bodies and businesses, to “make the full range of civic partners feel part of a well-established, collective endeavour”.

The report argues that to increase collaboration, R&D funding consortia should, from now on, require the involvement of more diverse groups, like local authorities or directly elected mayors, businesses of all sizes and public sector bodies.

Places “that have less” must focus “steadfastly” on where their potential lies. In Lincoln, for example, the university has worked to develop its agricultural R&D with the Agri-Food Technology Institute, turning this significant but underinvested local industry into “an opportunity to develop innovation and productivity”. Crucial to this effort, the authors say, is “a mix of funding opportunities to support businesses at different stages of their development”.

The authors call for funders to employ more nuanced metrics, particularly reducing the importance of intellectual property, academic publication and university spin-outs as measures of success. These metrics don’t accurately account for different types of success in local contexts and may “draw efforts away from those activities that might have a more direct impact on regional imbalance”, the authors explain.

Prof Graham Baldwin, vice-chair of MillionPlus, an association of modern universities, told a fringe event at the Conservative party conference in September that “it is our vocational and technical offerings that truly set us apart, and our ability to innovate and work with business and industry to meet key local needs”. Building links with industry and delivering “cutting-edge courses” would only continue, he warned, with governmental support.

The report also recommends:

  • The Connecting Capabilities Fund, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, Strength in Places Fund, and Innovate UK need more money.
  • Support from the British Business Bank and others to “derisk” venture capital in areas outside of the golden triangle “with less of a track record”.
  • Local and central governments should identify “regional clusters” – like the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine – to help attract investment, particularly from overseas.

Read more: Government R&D spending pledge crucial, MPs told ahead of spending review

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