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Pitching in, not just bailing out – by Margot James of the Warwick Manufacturing Group

  • 27 May 2020
  • By Margot James

This blog was kindly contributed by Margot James, Executive Chair of Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick. She previously served as Minister of State for Digital and Creative Industries and as Minister for Small Business.

I joined Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick as Executive Chair at the start of April. It was a baptism of fire – the Covid-19 pandemic means all of us in higher education, just like most of the rest of the country, have had to deal with entirely new ways of working. The crisis has affected every aspect of how we conduct research, educate students and support our communities. Campuses are closed, exams halted, teaching moving online.

Faced with these challenges, our sector has responded. From the efforts to develop a vaccine to 3D printing protective equipment and InnovateUK and UKRI’s coordination of efforts to design, approve and manufacture medical equipment, the higher education sector has shown how central it is to the life of the nation.

Looking ahead, we know that our sector will face real pressures as we emerge from lockdown. There is significant uncertainty over student numbers for the next academic year, and we can expect significant disruption to international student admissions. A London Economics report for UCU shows there is likely to be a shortfall in HE budgets of £2.6 billion.

To address this, Universities UK has proposed a bailout package, and the Government has responded by bringing forward tuition fee income and research funding. The Government package is a welcome first step. However, it is only a first step, as Ministers have acknowledged in agreeing to work with the sector by setting up two new groups, on international student recruitment and research funding.

We must engage constructively with these groups, making the case that supporting higher education is crucial to the national effort to help Britain recover from Covid-19 and demonstrating how support for higher education will improve the health, economic growth and sustainability of the nation.

We need to recognise that higher education is far from alone in needing help. Over six million workers are furloughed. The Office for Budget Responsibility projects a 35% decline in output. Tax receipts are falling and spending commitments rising. For many companies thriving just two months ago, survival is now the only thing on their agenda.

As a former Minister, I have experience of being on the receiving end of many valid and urgent requests for support. The Chancellor’s decision to do ‘Whatever it takes’ to get us through the immediate crisis was correct and brave. Nevertheless, Ministers will face many competing demands as we try to recover.

In making our case, we should consider what the Government will need to achieve for the nation and how we will contribute to meeting those goals.

First, there is the risk of economic scarring from a rise in unemployment and underemployment. The Resolution Foundation has pointed out out that those most vulnerable to losing income from Covid-19 include women, the young, the low-paid and those in temporary or part-time work. There will also be many families who have been directly affected by Covid-19, including those who have lost loved ones. Some workers and healthcare professionals will have endured months of very stressful work.

Universities can help by offering to support education and the development of skills for those furloughed or at risk of unemployment. What of those entering the workforce this year and next, against a backdrop of recession – how can we help employers and students ensure their talents are not wasted? Can we do more on apprenticeships, on offering support to Further Education colleges? What proposals can we make to ensure Apprenticeship Levy and training funds are not sitting idle during this crisis?

Next, how can we support the growth of Research and Innovation across Britain? The leading role of British scientists in developing a vaccine and deploying medical technology highlights the importance of both blue-sky and applied research to grand national challenges.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, the Government set an ambitious target of increasing the share of national output spent on R&D to 2.4% by 2027. Currently, two-thirds of UK Private sector R&D is performed in the manufacturing sector, but manufacturing output is predicted to decline by fifty-five per cent, so the industrial landscape for innovation is at risk. Many businesses will lack funds to invest in innovation.

We need a series of lifeboat projects, along the lines of the Premium Automotive research programme, which laid the groundwork for Britain’s automotive recovery, aiming to preserve R&D capability and attract global investment in sectors where UK research strength can have powerful economic and social impacts. Digitisation, pharmaceuticals, advanced manufacturing, aviation and materials are obvious areas for focus. A hard look at supply chains is essential. For goods and services that are essential to life, let alone the economy, to be subject to supply chains that turn out to be so fragmented and unreliable will never be acceptable again.

We need to explain why increased research funding is critical to future growth – whether in giving us the capability to develop vaccines, ensuring we have a sustainable energy supply or achieving zero carbon transport.

Then there is the levelling up agenda. The Government will be sharply aware that the economic impact of Covid-19 falls hardest on our industrial heartlands. A recent KPMG analysis suggests the Midlands, North-West and the East of England will be the most affected by Covid-19, with Gross Value Added (GVA) declining by over 10 per cent in the West Midlands.

Here, the higher education sector’s deep connection to local economies will be essential to recovery. We should be emphasising our role in attracting investment, jobs and growth to our communities, and offer to increase support to local businesses, especially SMEs, from apprenticeships to knowledge transfer partnerships.

The national effort to recover from Covid-19 will be as dramatic and vital a project as the immediate response. As we work with the Government for further support for our sector, we should set our arguments clearly in the context of supporting that national effort. Further support for higher education should be focused on our work to improve life chances, create innovation and employment and strengthen communities. We have been at the heart of the fight against Covid-19. Let’s put ourselves at the front of the fight for recovery.

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