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Recovery can be achieved through empowering our regions – including England’s south east

Shoppers on London's Oxford Street (By: Mary Hinckley) © UCL Media Services - University College London
Shoppers on London's Oxford Street

Regional collaborations between universities, colleges, healthcare, communities and business, coupled with sustained R&D investment, can support the UK’s post-pandemic recovery, says James Ransom. 

It is a cold December afternoon and a debate is taking place in the House of Lords on the role of science in everyday life. “With science today the possibilities are almost infinite”, says Lord Taylor. He gives an example of the “wonderful triumph” of a new vaccine, saving hundreds of thousands of lives throughout the world. The year is 1959, and the vaccine in question was beginning to tackle the scourge of polio. 

The development of the COVID-19 vaccine presents a similar case study of the power and possibility of science, and the role of universities in driving new discoveries. In my report for Universities UK, I look at the potential impact of the UK’s universities over the next five years. The report forms part of University UK’s #GettingResults campaign, showcasing the key role our universities will play in the economic and social recovery from the pandemic. The campaign has reached more than 10 million social media users, and politicians across the UK have shown their support. 

Given the importance of empowering the UK’s regions as part of the recovery and broader efforts to ‘level up’, the science and engineering work of universities has an important place dimension. The rich collaborations that exist between higher education, colleges, healthcare providers, communities, businesses and local government will underpin not only the recovery from the pandemic, but also the response to long-standing structural issues facing our society, from deep-rooted inequalities between places to the climate emergency. As such, the data in the report is broken down by UK nation and English region. 

Universities in the east of England, London, and the south east – home to Science and Engineering South’s (SES) seven members – will attract nearly £7bn of national and international public funds to spend on collaborative research with businesses and non-academic organisations over the next five years. This is nearly a third of the total for the UK as a whole, and 40% of the total for England. It also reflects a strong track record: these regions have received a third of Innovate UK’s competitive awards for thematic research since 2014. This funding has a focus on collaboration with business and showcases areas of regional research and industry strength.  

Nearly a third of funding received by research organisations in the south east was for artificial intelligence and data projects with businesses, a higher proportion than any other region. In the east of England, 59% of funding has been for manufacturing, materials and mobility projects. More than half of Innovate UK funding in London has been for ageing, health and nutrition – higher than regional counterparts across the UK. 

Nearly two thirds of employers anticipate a need for upskilling in the next 12 months. In response, universities in SES member regions will deliver the equivalent of 5,800 years of training and education courses to businesses and charities in the next 12 months alone. 

Universities in the three regions also have a track record of attracting funding for local regeneration projects with significant economic and social impact. Over the next five years, these will have a value of over £235mi. They will also help create more than 9,300 new businesses and charities – contributing nearly half of the overall forecast for England. They will also be commissioned to provide more than £5bn of support and services to small enterprises, businesses and not-for-profits by May 2026 – more than half the total for England. This includes specialist advice, access to the latest facilities and equipment to develop innovative products and conducting bespoke research projects. 

Research conducted in one region often has impact across the UK. Researchers work with colleagues from industries in both nearby and far-flung regions. Supply chains criss-cross towns and cities from the north to the south. The impact of this work is therefore felt widely, and the importance of the levelling up agenda means universities will be seeking to maximise the geographic spread of their research and innovation activity. 

These forecasts show what is possible – rather than guaranteed – over the next five years. The limitations of the data also need to be borne in mind. But the opportunities, if universities are supported in their efforts, can be transformative. 

There are several important things to note. First, these figures could represent significant under-estimates, given lower data returns during the pandemic and other policy changes. However, given the dramatically changing economic and policy environment, such a contribution from universities cannot be taken for granted. World-class innovation and research assets need support. Training highly skilled people requires investment. Ensuring the benefits of both of these are felt equally around the UK will depend on robust policy and funding decisions. 

Local and combined authorities and metro mayors should continue to work with universities on their economic and social planning. Government should support university collaborations with dedicated funding, and encourage these in programmes, such as the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and the Levelling Up Fund. And UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) should take the lead in efforts to improve and maintain funding to rebalance regional research and innovation funding. This doesn’t mean taking money away from universities in the south. As Sarah Chaytor and colleagues have argued, the promised uplift in R&D funding should allow investment in both new and existing centres of excellence. 

Given the benefits of working together and the scale of the recovery ahead of us, collaborations between universities and their partners need to continue to grow and develop. Universities are open for business, and SES members can set a model for the rest of the UK to follow. 

Back in 1959, Lord Taylor was calling on the government to do more to support science in the UK, recognising its important role in society. The first minister for science had just been announced, a post still in place today. Post-war recovery was still a top priority for the government and investing in science presented a path forwards. Today, this call to support scientific research remains vital for our post-COVID recovery. 

James Ransom is head of research at the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE), and a doctoral candidate at UCL Institute of Education