Monday, July 8, 2013

World-Class University Research Requires Cutting-Edge Infrastructure

Investment newspaper
Photograph: Alamy

Alex Bols is chief executive of the 1994 group of universities - follow it on Twitter @1994group and Alex @alexbols

To make the most of the current financial climate, universities could use a clearer picture of funding strategy, says Alex Bols.

UK universities are second only to US higher education for their excellent research, which in turn drives the country's economic growth and pushes forward the boundaries of knowledge.  

The 1994 Group is running a project this year to identify the key elements policy-makers need to put in place to help institutions to build on this world-class reputation.

At the last spending review in 2010, funding for investment in capital, along with many other areas in these financially challenging times, was significantly restricted.

This funding has, to a large extent, been supplemented since then with a series of high-profile announcements of funding for particular projects.

Does the government's attitude towards investment in capital reflect the current funding environment or a wider shift in the way funding will be allocated in the future?

In recent months, we've looked at different aspects of research funding policy, such as the dangers of concentrating research funding too hard and the significance of critical mass.

We have also held a series of policy events in recent weeks, bringing together experts from across the sector, looking at the importance of investing in research careers and the necessity of investing in infrastructure.

A number of key themes emerged about the demands of university buildings and equipment: firstly, the value of demonstrating the efficient use of buildings and equipment, and that they are meeting a specific need; secondly, the importance of using government funding to leverage additional funding.

To make the most of the current financial climate, universities could use a clearer picture of government strategy.

The change of attitude following the 2010 spending review begs the question: has the government been convinced of the importance of investing in research infrastructure, and as such will they make this a priority at the next spending review?

Or do these moves symbolise an emerging new landscape in which the government allocates funding on a more ad hoc basis for specific high profile priorities?

It will be important in the lead up to the next general election, and the spending review that will take place shortly afterwards, for universities and the sector to make the case for a longer-term strategic approach to funding.

This approach will be necessary to ensure effective planning, to identify the highest priorities where the greatest impact can be made, and to develop strong partnerships.

The ability to leverage additional funding from external sources is also crucial. It may be possible to have 'shovel-ready' projects in some instances when funding becomes available, but it takes a lot of time and planning to develop these projects and bring in matched funding.

While the sector has responded well to these bids for funding, it might be possible in future to bring in additional funding from business partners if there is a longer lead-in time.

If there has been a more fundamental shift in the way government allocates funding, how could institutions be better prepared to respond to funding pots with tight deadlines?

Partly this will involve institutions developing their own priority lists for investment, either singularly or as a group - these should also feed into national priorities for investment.

At a time when government funding remains limited, the capacity for government investment to leverage additional income, whether matched funding from the institution or from business more widely, seems likely to remain a priority.

This links to the benefits of longer-term strategic relationships, whether with other universities, business or philanthropic sources or even their Local Enterprise Partnerships, which enable universities to best take advantage of funding as it arises.

It will be much easier to call on partners and matched funding if there is already an existing relationship between organisations.

In an ideal world, the key to infrastructure investment would be a longer-term approach to funding.

Institutions could identify key priorities based on a specific need and demonstrating the impact of previous investment, all the while building strategic partnerships to ensure efficiencies and the ability to leverage additional funding now - and into the future.

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