Universities UK attacks ‘disappointing’ ODA research cuts

The ODA funds will be significantly cut, harming “cutting-edge” research and universities’ international standing, UUK said

Universities UK today attacked government cuts to Official Development Assistance (ODA), which will damage universities’ “international standing” and stymie research on “global challenges”. 

UKRI announced yesterday that its ODA allocation for 2021/22 had been nearly halved to £125m – leaving a £120m shortfall. The Global Challenges Research Fund and Newton Fund are among those affected. It warned it was unlikely to fund the majority of awards beyond the end of July.

As reported by University Business yesterday, the quality-related (QR) funding funnelled through the GCRF will also be cut, UKRI confirmed today. 

The funding agency said the “significant impact” of the cuts would necessitate “reprofiling and reducing grants”, although it was “too early to detail the final impact”. Prof Christopher Smith, UKRI International Champion, told universities, “it is also unavoidable that some grants will need to be terminated”.

This decision runs counter to the government’s stated commitment to increase investment in R&D to position the UK as a scientific superpower and is especially disappointing in light of the enormous contribution universities have made
– Prof Julia Buckingham, UUK

Prof Julia Buckingham, president of UUK, said the late timing of the announcement left universities faced “difficult decisions”, which would “[reduce] their ability to collaborate with international partners”. 

“ODA funding has enabled universities to strengthen their global networks and improve millions of lives across the world while providing opportunities for UK researchers to advance their careers and generate knock-on benefits for local communities and the wider economy,” she said. 

“This decision runs counter to the government’s stated commitment to increase investment in R&D to position the UK as a scientific superpower and is especially disappointing in light of the enormous contribution universities have made – including through ODA-funded projects – towards supporting the country through the Covid-19 pandemic.”

She said the government must “reaffirm its commitment” to expand investment in research and development to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. “Future support for international research collaboration will be critical to sustaining the UK’s position as a science superpower,” she added. 

Universities had used ODA grants to research ways to address plastic waste management, develop renewable energy and clean water technology, improve worldwide labour laws, and roll out 5G networks in lower and middle-income countries, UUK said. The grants financed Covid-related research, which developed enhanced virus detection technology and online rehab services to help long-Covid sufferers. 

ODA funds linked to the government commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on international development. Despite opposition from senior backbenchers, including former prime minister Theresa May, the government will abolish this commitment in response to the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ministers have reiterated the government’s intention to return to the 0.7% GNI target when the fiscal situation allows.

Universities UK International polled higher education providers last year on the impact of ODA grants. Universities said the funds had “become an integral part of university research and international/global strategies”.

“It would therefore be a huge waste of investment and resources to restrict funding or pull back on opportunities, just as the resulting networks are being built up and as outcomes are starting to take shape. With continued ODA funding to support the higher education sector, great strides can be made,” UUKI said.

ODA-funded research cited by Universities UK: 

  • Research at the University of East Anglia that influenced plastic waste management policies in Malaysia.
  • Durham University led a project called ‘Decent work regulation in Africa’, the findings of which are used by the UN International Labour Organisation to shape global policy on labour laws.
  • The University of Leicester created tests for detecting TB infections in Africa, which was adapted to detect Covid-19 in the UK.
  • The University of Strathclyde, in collaboration with industry, devised new technology for water pumps, electric grid solutions and 5G networks.
  • The University of Liverpool has run an Antislavery Knowledge Network that connects researchers, politicians and policymakers across the Commonwealth to tackle modern slavery.

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