Department for Business, Innovation and SkillsToday, the government published a White Paper on higher education, Success as a Knowledge Economy. The paper includes plans to make it easier to set-up new universities, improve teaching quality and graduate employability, but it also sets out planned changes to the structures that govern and fund research and innovation in the UK.

With the Higher Education green paper in autumn 2015 and a commitment to implement the recommendations of the Nurse Review at the Spending Review, government gave an indication of their aims for the UK research system. This White Paper now gives details of how they plan to achieve them.

UK Research and Innovation

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) will establish a new funding body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), bringing together the 7 Research Councils, Innovate UK and the research funding functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which will become known as Research England. These 9 organisations will operate as councils with ‘delegated autonomy and authority’ in UKRI, but by bringing them under one roof, the aim is to create a more strategic and agile system that can act as a champion for research.

In the White Paper, BIS make clear their commitment to both dual support and the Haldane principle. For dual support, the separation of project-based funding from ‘quality-related’ funding will be key, as the structures that fund them—the Research Councils and Research England—are brought together. To protect the Haldane principle, the paper states that each of the 9 Councils within UKRI will retain autonomy over their budgets, with funding decisions being made by the relevant experts.

Integrating innovation

Perhaps the most controversial inclusion in UKRI is Innovate UK, which many had argued should remain outside the new funding body, given its focus on supporting innovation in business. However, although they consulted the community on this particular move, BIS have decided to integrate Innovate UK into UKRI. It will retain its business focus and separate funding stream, as well as its ‘name, brand and symbolic properties’. Government’s broader plans for innovation are likely to become clearer after the publication of the forthcoming National Innovation Plan.

UKRI leadership and interaction with government

To lead UKRI, a board will be put in place with responsibility for overall strategic direction, cross-cutting decision making and advising the Secretary of State on the balance of funding between research disciplines. Roles on this Board are likely to become some of the top jobs in UK research policy; John Kingman has been announced as the Chair on an interim basis, and the CEO is yet to be named.

The Nurse Review recommends ‘new cross-government arrangements’, proposing the option of a Ministerial committee to oversee research and innovation across government. The White Paper now reveals that BIS have instead opted to operate cross-government arrangements through a reformed Council for Science and Technology (CST), a group which already exists to advise the Prime Minister. The Society’s President has an ex-officio position on CST, and the White Paper explains that in future he will be joined on the group by the Chair of UKRI.

A Higher Education Bill?

Many of the plans in the White Paper will require legislation to become reality, and so a Higher Education Bill—which many expect to be announced in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday 18 May—may reveal a further level of detail about next steps.

A Bill would then need to pass through Parliament in the usual way, being considered and debated by parliamentarians, before any new legal arrangements can be put into action. With legislation in place, transitioning to the new structures will take time and the White Paper is relatively light on details of the timetable for transition, or any interim arrangements.

Before the White Paper was published, the Society published a statement urging government to take a strategic, joined-up approach to changes to the research, higher education and innovation landscapes. The Society has now made an initial statement in response to these announcements, and will be paying attention to progress from this point, as details of the government’s plans to implement the Nurse Review become clearer.

  • James Naismith

    I was disappointed in the White paper and future plans for the Bill. The Nurse vision as I understood it was to bring a strategic focus to research, a joined-up approach across government. What this looks like is souped up RCUK, no doubt with all the costs of reorganisation. The problems of government departments supporting (or more likely cutting) their isolated research fiefdoms are unaddressed as the focus in entirely on the RCs. The DoH retains control of it’s in-house RC as does DECC and MOD, a bolder vision would have joined these up.
    If this re-organisation creates turmoil and paralysis (any more CEO resignations, sorry move to new posts?) then the Nurse review will have achieved next to nothing. Worse from a Scottish context the shifting of money will play havoc (this is not England’s fault, just a consequence).