Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

University research: The HE general election issues, Day 3

  • 7 June 2024
  • By Nick Hillman
  • HEPI is running a seven-day blog series on important election-related issues, which is aimed primarily at non-specialist readers. This third piece, written by HEPI’s Director, Nick Hillman, outlines the research challenges currently facing higher education institutions.
  • The first piece, which looks at student voters, is here and the second piece, which focuses on funding, is here.
  • If you are not yet registered to vote at the forthcoming general election, you can still register here (until 11.59pm on Tuesday, 18 June 2024):
  • There is (just) time to register for the HEPI Annual Conference on ‘Higher education on the cusp of the general election’, sponsored by Kortext and TechnologyOne, which is taking place in central London on Thursday, 13 June 2024. There are a (very) small number of seats left.

The ‘fastest ever increase in domestic public R&D spending’?

At the 2019 General Election, the Conservative Party reiterated the commitments already made by the Conservative Government to spend more on research and development (R&D). Their manifesto promised ‘the fastest ever increase in domestic public R&D spending, including in basic science research to meet our target of 2.4 per cent of GDP [Gross Domestic Product] being spent on R&D across the economy’.

Although this was in line with previous promises, it still seemed like a big commitment, given that – at the time – total R&D spending in the UK was running at about 1.7% of GDP (or around £39 billion). But the Labour Party manifesto committed to even more, including ‘a target for 3% of GDP to be spent on research and development (R&D) by 2030.’ Similarly, the Liberal Democrats promised ‘an interim target of 2.4 per cent of GDP [on R&D] by no later than 2027’ as well as a commitment to ‘Increase national spending on research and development to three per cent of GDP.’

It is important to remember such targets are not just for public spending, which makes up around only one-fifth of all R&D spending in the UK. Instead, they cover all R&D spending, including the 70% or so that comes from business. Public and private spending are mixed together in the data in part because it is hoped additional public spending will ‘crowd in’ more private spending.

However, it is difficult to judge long-term progress because, in 2022, the Office for National Statistics revised their methodology for counting R&D spending. This boosted the recorded annual total by around £20 billion a year. As a result, the UK leap-frogged many other countries when measured by spending on R&D, moving from a little below the average among developed nations to someway above the average, which the OECD currently puts at 2.7% of GDP.

It was almost as if, with the stroke of a pen, politicians’ commitments had unexpectedly come true. In the words of the (always excellent) House of Commons Library:

It is estimated that, in 2020, R&D spending in the UK was equivalent to 2.9% to 3% of GDP.

This was above the OECD and EU average. Among G7 nations, the USA spent the most on R&D (3.47% of GDP) followed by Japan (3.27%) and Germany (3.13%). The UK spent the fourth highest as a share of GDP.

University-based research

A higher proportion of research is conducted within universities in the UK than in many other countries. The financial sponsors of this research include UKRI (which stands for UK Research and Innovation and includes the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and Research England) as well as devolved funding bodies, charities and industry. Yet none of the main sponsors of university research covers the full economic costs – such as many of the overheads – of actually undertaking research.

Overall, only around two-thirds of the costs of research are covered, leaving a shortfall across the UK that amounts to around £5 billion a year. The shortfall has, in large part, been made up from tuition fees paid by international students (as also occurs in some key competitor countries, such as Australia). This substantial cross-subsidy is under threat due to the underfunding of home students, which creates another financial shortfall, as well as tighter restrictions affecting international students.

Source: Office for Students, Annual TRAC 2021-22: Sector summary and analysis by TRAC peer group, May 2023

Research culture and environment

The research community is not, however, only concerned about the future total level of spending. The quality of the research environment matters too, which relates to factors such as the working conditions as well as the culture and environment. The most conducive conditions for research include clear pathways for early career researchers, smooth migration processes for researchers from other countries and good access to high-quality shared infrastructure.

These things are easier to deliver when there is long-term planning. For example, it takes time to put the right infrastructure in place and to improve the so-called ‘pipeline’ for new researchers, while private funders of research are more likely to co-invest in research when they believe there is long-term stability in public funding. In other words, stability in public support is a good way to help ensure the available financial resources are spent wisely.

Such stability has not been evident in recent years. There has been a succession of different Ministers with responsibility for science and research – with eight different Ministers in the last decade, three of whom completed two stints in the job. Meanwhile, Whitehall restructuring has meant science and research policy has been found in a number of different Whitehall Departments over recent years, last shifting in 2023 from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

One consequence of these frequent changes is that science and research policy is no longer overseen by a Minister or a Department with responsibility for other aspects of higher education, such as the teaching of students.

Despite the well-recognised success of the UK research community in tackling global problems, most notably perhaps in the development of vaccines to tackle COVID, university-based researchers have been on the receiving end of some sharp rhetorical attacks in recent years. At the 2023 Conservative Party Conference, for example, Ministers launched a campaign aimed at ‘kicking woke ideology out of science‘. While it was not completely clear what this meant, social media campaigners have since picked up the baton to question the public funding of specific research projects. However, under the long-standing Haldane Principle, which has been accepted by all governments for decades, decisions on funding individual research projects are taken by researchers themselves through peer review and not by politicians.

A 10-year funding settlement?

Alongside the hopes for continued increases in funding and some people’s desire for a fresh look at the machinery of government, there is also a common desire for any new commitments on research that are put in place after the General Election to be designed to last for many years. The Opposition have suggested a future Labour Government could implement a 10-year funding settlement.

One precedent for this is the 2004 Science and Innovation: 10 Year investment framework. This was built upon six enduring themes: world-class research; the needs of the economy; business R&D; the supply of scientists; public understanding and engagement; and science and innovation across Government. However, while this initiative from 20 years ago remains well regarded today, the subsequent economic challenges, the change in administration in 2010 and the ensuing period of austerity show how hard it is to deliver a long-term strategy in the face of new exigencies.

Further reading

1 comment

  1. What proportion of research is conducted within universities in the UK compared to other countries?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *