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Emerging HE policies highlight new political landscape

Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.

Rethinking universities from the outside in

Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.

Covid-19 funding squeeze must not jeopardise research excellence in modern universities

As plans unfold for the next Research Excellence Framework, positions are already being taken as to how to divide up the spoils in the form of the subsequent Research Excellence Grant (REG). Should this further favour the UK’s elite universities? Glasgow Caledonian University Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Pamela Gillies and GCU Yunus Chair and Pro Vice-Chancellor Research Professor Cam Donaldson offer a view from the other side of the tracks.


It is a pity that resource constraint and more general adversity often lead to ‘othering’ and division - reflected in societal trends such as islamophobia, anti-Semitism and, arguably, Brexit. Such trends also reflect the desires of significant proportions of populations to step back in time, thinking that things will be better: as opposed to the reality of halting social progress towards more prosperous, equal and representative societies. Coronavirus has raised expectations about a better world, but, for universities, resource constraint will continue, and perhaps get significantly worse, in a post Covid-19 world. 

How do such trends, and the potential adverse outcomes they engender, relate to the research environments of higher education institutions? It could be argued that, pre Covid-19, resource constraint led to calls to concentrate available research funding in our leading universities – the ‘jewels in the crown’. Here in Scotland, less-explicit calls were made for “larger HEIs with greater capacity to engage and coordinate innovation activities taking the lead” and for allocation of funds based on Research Excellence Framework (REF) performance to better recognise this.

With the Covid-19-induced delay in the REF, such debates are likely to be returned to and could continue along the lines of the Russell Group call to concentrate even more funding in large internationally-recognised institutions. The ‘everyday othering’ here is subtle and implicit, with no fingers pointed at ‘lesser’ institutions.

As othering tends to be harmful with respect to wider social trends, how might this be the case in university research-land? Whether explicit or implicit, othering of institutions such as ours - where we have important and impactful research in a smaller number of areas than the research-intensive universities - is potentially harmful in many ways (for a topical example of such impactful work, see this Lancet-published research on the effectiveness of handwashing against Covid-19). First, this outlook encourages wasteful fights over peanuts. Here at Glasgow Caledonian our 2019-20 Research Excellence Grant (REG) – distributed by funders based on previous REF performance -  amounts to £2.7 million per annum. The largest REG in Scotland is that of the University of Edinburgh, at £78 million per annum. So, in REG (as well as in many other) terms, not only does research concentration already exist, but also one has to question the evidence base for the marginal impact of taking away the small amounts of the REG allocated to modern universities and adding it to already-large amounts allocated to the research-intensives.

Secondly, there may even be a value-for-money case for such funds to be flowing in the other direction. In our case, three years ago, the REG allowed us to develop our research base around being the first university to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals as the operating framework for our research strategy. Among other things, this has allowed us to support six impactful research centres – including those in Climate Justice and our Yunus Centre for Social Business & Health - to pursue this agenda. This has attracted further funding to Scotland from UK Research & Innovation, the National Institute for Health Research and Wellcome Trust and contributed substantially to Glasgow Caledonian being ranked, for two consecutive years, in the top 50 worldwide in the recent Times Higher Education Social Impact Rankings. Further to our hosting of the first ever World Forum on Climate Justice in 2019, our REG funding has enabled us to take a leading role in hosting events in association with the forthcoming COP26 in Glasgow (now postponed until next year). Our Yunus Centre, too, has hosted two of the last four International Social Innovation Research Conferences in 2017 and 2019.

Helping universities produce ‘global citizens’

Third, resources supported by the REG allow us to leverage so much more in pursuit of a rounded education for our students - one that follows from our mission as the ‘University for the Common Good’. A research focus on social innovation in addressing the SDGs ties in well with our own particular approach to producing graduates who are ‘global citizens’. For example, through the work of our Glasgow School for Business & Society, our University became a PRME (Principles of Responsible Management Education) signatory in 2012, progressing now to being one of 30 PRME Global Champions and, in 2013, the first Scottish university to join the UN Global Compact. The Compact calls on companies to align with universal principles of human rights, fair employment, environmental sustainability and anti-corruption, whilst the corresponding mission of PRME is for business schools to transform management education, research and thought leadership in line with the SDGs.

This is further reflected in our accreditation as an AshokaU Changemaker Campus, bringing us into a network of around 50 like-minded universities worldwide, going beyond the curriculum to enhance access, mobility and student participation. Our research leadership in social innovation has enabled such important accreditations and has enhanced the student experience. No doubt other Modern Universities are in similar, and perhaps even stronger, positions to ours, following exactly the ‘pockets of excellence’ mantra that ‘big is not necessarily beautiful’, which funding authorities recognised in REF2014.

The ‘pockets of excellence’ notion extends to the successful ESRC-funded Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS). Based on visionary and strong leadership from Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities, this initiative includes every university in Scotland, all of whom have benefited in one way or another from the array of funding schemes and other initiatives on offer. This is a good example of our final point, which is to ask whether we would be comfortable with even greater research concentration resulting in students attending those universities that are less well-off, and which, incidentally, have greater success in widening access, missing out on the research-based education that we can provide on the meagre resources that we are currently allocated.

We do not wish to be pushed into a position of ‘othering’ and would hope that, as in the case of SGSSS, all universities could come together and fight for more research resources for all. However, it does often feel, here in the Modern part of the sector, that the efforts we have made to support and develop our pockets of research excellence are under threat, which could lead to great harm, not only to the educational experience of our students but also to society more widely.