Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education

Higher education innovation funding – underpinning a truly national industrial strategy


In amongst all the discussion about Toby Young you may have missed the email from David Sweeney (incoming Executive Chair of Research England) about knowledge exchange funding – and in particular the how the first wave of additional £40m Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) as part of the Industrial Strategy might be allocated.

HEIF must be a foundation stone for industrial strategy

HEIF is a good thing. It enables HEIs to develop a broad range of interactions between universities and colleges and the wider world. However as many GuildHE members will know HEIF has long been an area of contention for some smaller institutions with its arbitrary £250,000 threshold on external income earnings.  

This threshold excludes smaller universities and colleges (including the majority of GuildHE members). This limits their ability to carry out valuable work that would support government in its ambition to boost productivity across the country. Which in the context of the government’s Industrial Strategy misses a trick.

GuildHE members are often found outside of the South East and major cities. They are close to the industries and professions they serve and have a strong track record of knowledge exchange in areas such as agriculture and food; education; maritime; health and sports and the creative disciplines. In cities where they are one of a number of HEIs, they make a unique contribution to their socioeconomic context (Plymouth College of Art providing an example of creative institutions as innovate anchors).

Yet when this HEIF threshold was introduced, it resulted in many small and specialist providers losing a funding stream that enabled them to carry out bold, valuable initiatives. Staff capacity to continue growing such work reduced and longer-term positive impacts at local, national and international levels were lost. A foundation stone was cracked.

We have a unique opportunity to redress this. The Industrial Strategy White Paper itself states “university technology transfer offices sometimes lack the resources and skills to fully develop commercialisation opportunities, particularly in institutions that have historically undertaken less of this activity”. The Industrial Strategy, particularly through the development of the KEF and other initiatives (such as the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and Strength in Places) offers a chance to review the terms of HEIF to ensure it drives benefit across all areas of the country and to fix the crack before the stone breaks.

But what is the Industrial Strategy all about? Four “Grand Challenges” and “Five Foundations”…

The publication of the Industrial Strategy White Paper has lots that’s of interest for universities and colleges no matter where they sit within the innovation and research ecosystem.

But there are a couple of challenges too – both for HEIs and for government in how it delivers on its ambitions. Collectively, we have a duty to society at large to rise to them.

The big difference from the Green Paper (published in January 2017) is the introduction of four overarching Grand Challenges supported by five foundations.

The four challenges are:

  • growing the Artificial Intelligence and data driven economy
  • clean growth
  • future of mobility
  • ageing society

And the five foundations are:

  • Ideas: the world’s most innovative economy
  • People: good jobs and greater earning power for all
  • Infrastructure: a major upgrade to the UK’s infrastructure
  • Business Environment: the best place to start and grow a business
  • Places: prosperous communities across the UK

The rationale appears to be that all initiatives supported by government should be seeking to address these Grand Challenges. HEIs are seen as playing important roles in both the “ideas” and “people” foundations, and in addressing the challenges.

Building an… analogy

I’ve found it helpful to view the way it all fits together as something similar to a Grecian temple. The foundations become… foundations that allow the grand challenges to be addressed in order to “create an economy that boosts productivity and earning power throughout the UK”. Indeed, individual policy interventions could be viewed as building blocks – for example, HEIF and KEF are key components of “Ideas” – foundation stones you may say.

Why Industrial Strategy is important for HEIs

There is a significant increase in R&D funding and HEIs will be a major recipient of these funds. Local industrial strategies are to be developed and, as major economic players in their areas, HEIs should have an important role in shaping them.

It’s within this context that the role of higher education can become even clearer. HEIs have obvious roles to play in the “ideas” and “people” foundations, along with “place” (as the announcement of a “Strength in Places” fund demonstrates). Furthermore, their work – whether through research or other initiatives – can act as building blocks within the other foundations.

HEIs of all shapes and sizes across all areas of the UK have a duty to engage in these initiatives (not least to help counter recent negative press coverage about the sector). However, government must equally recognise and support the diversity of the HE sector if it wants the Industrial Strategy to succeed.  There must be capacity-building investment outside of the “golden triangle”, throughout the UK and across the whole of the research and innovation ecosystem. And making HEIF the foundation stone could be the way to do this.

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