By Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli – Vice Chancellor of the University of Glasgow and Chair of the Russell Group.
March 11th 2020. It seems an age ago – a time with Brexit talks, Champions League football, and leisurely strolls in early Spring.
It was also the day of the Budget. A moment when Rishi Sunak reiterated the UK Government’s desire to see the country become a global superpower in science and research, unveiling the fastest and the largest increase in research and development spend ever.
It was a welcome vote of confidence in universities. A signal that science and technology would drive the UK forward. That Higher Education could be an engine for levelling-up the economy.
If that was then, then is this now – a world upended by COVID-19.
Crises can be moments of clarity. When events move that little bit quicker, when the pieces are in flux, strengths and weaknesses become magnified. They are thrown into sharp relief.
For universities coronavirus (COVID-19) has brought into focus both the transformative power of our world-leading research but also the limitations of the current funding model.
First, the positive news. UK universities are marshalling their resources at unprecedented pace in response to the virus. At Glasgow, we are proud to have been named one of the UK’s three Lighthouse Labs, at the vanguard of efforts to ramp up the country’s testing capacity and deliver tests to all those that need them.
Our peers have been equally responsive. The University of Sheffield has been producing PPE (personal protective equipment) for the NHS, at Leeds they’re mapping COVID-19 to identify local measures to prevent the spread of the virus and pioneering teams at Oxford and Imperial are at the forefront of global efforts to develop a vaccine.
And, yet, at precisely the moment when the value of our research is so clear, universities are confronted with their greatest financial challenge of modern times.
Yesterday, the UK Government announced a welcome package of measures designed to bring short term stability to the sector. In England, funding has been brought forward to help with cashflow issues and sector-wide agreement has been reached on student intakes.
But research remains the missing piece of the puzzle. In lieu of unlocking any new finance, Department for Education (DfE) and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) will instead convene a ministerial task-force to examine how the research base can be sustained in these unprecedented times. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but one that must be followed through.
For those who have recently lost their job, or for business owners desperately trying to keep things afloat, universities may not seem the obvious choice for additional public investment.
It’s certainly true that universities are just one of many competing demands on government – and indeed one which already receives large sums of public money. Those of us who care deeply about the sector would do well to recognise this – and be clear how additional investment in higher education, and the research we support, is a down payment for the national recovery.
As our research-led response to the pandemic shows, universities are a vital national resource. Higher education remains one of the UK’s most enduring success stories. Worth £95 billion to the economy and supporting over 940,000 jobs.
If we are to maximise the recovery to come, then we must act to preserve the UK’s research base. As the Budget recognised, it is through higher education that we can drive innovation, safeguard our international competitiveness and lead the way in tackling the problems that were beginning to define our policy landscape pre-COVID-19 , such as climate change, technological innovation and rebalancing the economy.
None of these challenges have disappeared. The race to net-zero, sustainable infrastructure, smart cities, health innovation and addressing regional imbalances: these all require addressing and are areas where Universities can take the lead.
What we face today is not a re-run of the last financial crisis. This time austerity can’t be the answer. If we are to stave off another great depression, transform our economy to deal with future challenges and deliver growth to every region of the UK, then we must back strategically important sectors with additional financial resource.
This includes universities. Last year I produced a report for the Scottish Government on how the sector can drive innovation forward. Many of these lessons still hold – universities can leverage investment, act as beacons for global talent, bring academics and entrepreneurs together to create the high growth companies of the future and equip our young people with the skills they need to thrive in a challenging labour market.
All this is put at risk by non-intervention, or a piecemeal package of support that fails to safeguard the UK’s research base. It would undermine the Treasury’s previous approach, set back the levelling-up agenda and threaten an innovation eco-system which has taken decades to build.
No-one should be expecting a blank cheque – far from it. Universities must understand that the current system can’t be preserved in aspic. COVID-19 is a reset moment for all of us, higher education included.
But by working together around a national mission and clear set of common priorities, UK research can help shape an economy that delivers for all. There’s one thing that hasn’t changed since March.
This article was first published in The Telegraph on 6 May 2020.