Supporting universities could be key to economic and social recovery

“Support for universities means support for businesses and jobs, for key workers, and for levelling up the UK’s towns and regions.” (Universities UK)

Universities have long been positively associated with economic growth, not only for the regional areas in which they are situated but also for neighbouring regions as a result of spillover effects. The total income of the UK university sector has been estimated at around £40 billion per year – 1.8% of national income.

Many universities are important anchors in their local areas, supporting community activity in various ways and working in collaboration with smaller businesses. And they have played a vital role in the response to the current pandemic through medical research, sharing of resources and community wellbeing efforts. 

With widespread agreement over ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom’, it is no surprise there have been calls to ensure investment in this sector is a central priority. In forecasting the potential impact of UK universities over the next five years, recent research from Universities UK suggests that a well-supported university sector could be key to the economic and social recovery from the pandemic.

Supporting people

The Universities UK report outlines the ways in which universities support people, including by providing a pipeline of key workers and enabling upskilling for new jobs. It is projected that by May 2026, more than 191,000 nurses, 84,000 medical specialists and 188,000 teachers will graduate from UK universities. And it is suggested that these are likely to be underestimates. If these forecasts are accurate, the potential for universities to help address the skills gaps and shortages that the UK faces is clear, particularly as nursing and teaching have featured on the hard-to-fill and skills shortage vacancies lists.

It is also projected that demand for higher level skills will continue rising into the late 2020s. In the shorter term, 79% of employers with more than 25 staff anticipate a need for upskilling in the next 12 months, rising to 84% for firms with over 100 staff. No region sees the need for upskilling fall below 60%. In addition to educating students, universities are responding to this need with training and upskilling programmes tailored to employers and the community. Forecasts for each of the UK nations include:

  • universities in Northern Ireland will deliver the equivalent of 410 years of professional development training and education courses to businesses and charities in the next five years (and 90 years’ worth in the next 12 months)
  • Scottish universities will provide 3,490 years of training by May 2026 (over 600 years’ worth in the next year)
  • Welsh universities will deliver the equivalent of nearly 4,800 years of upskilling in the next five years (over 880 years’ worth in the next 12 months)
  • universities in England will provide the equivalent of over 549 centuries (54,936 years) of training by May 2026, and 10,580 years’ worth in the next year alone

As has been argued, “part of the effect of universities on growth is mediated through an increased supply of human capital and greater innovation”. 

Local economic impact

The local economic impact of universities is widely recognised. Universities have consistently attracted funding for local regeneration projects with significant economic and social impacts and the report forecasts that these will have a value of over £2.5 billion in local places across the UK over the next five years.

It is suggested that many of these projects will also attract additional funding from universities and businesses, resulting in even greater local impact.

Universities also have a direct impact on their local economies as large employers. It is estimated that 1.27% of all people in employment in the UK work for a university. Other recent analysis suggests that universities typically support up to one additional job in the immediate local economy for every person they directly employ.

The impact of universities on local procurement is also emphasised, highlighting the example of the Leeds Anchors Network, which is looking at opportunities to direct spending locally.  The report suggests that if anchor institutions in Leeds shift 10% of their total spending to suppliers in the region this could be worth up to £196 million each year.

Collaboration and contributing to research

The report also considers the role of universities in partnering with business, including providing advice/training and enabling cutting edge research and innovation.

It is forecast that UK universities will be commissioned to provide over £11.6 billion of support and services to small enterprises, businesses and not-for-profits over the next five years, ranging from specialist advice, access to the latest facilities and equipment to develop innovative products, and conducting bespoke research projects. It is also expected that universities will attract national and international public funds to spend on collaborative research with businesses and non-academic organisations, estimated to be worth £21.7 billion over the next five years.

The report highlights that this research leads to impact in priority sectors. In the East Midlands, for example, over a third of competitive funding received by research organisations since 2014 was for clean growth and infrastructure projects with businesses, a higher proportion than any other region. In Yorkshire 85% of funding has been for manufacturing, materials and mobility projects, and 53% of funding in London has been in the area of ageing, health and nutrition.

Universities have also been shown to be effective in commercialising their research via spinouts, an area that has a great deal of potential to contribute to economic growth.

Despite all universities conducting cutting-edge research, there are regional disparities in research and innovation investment. And there has been historic underfunding in some regions which has led to inequalities in economic performance across the UK, putting the levelling up agenda at risk. The report therefore argues that “research and innovation policy needs to be designed alongside, and be closely aligned to, local economic development policy.”

Of course, the higher education sector hasn’t been immune to recent financial cuts and the expected losses for the sector are “highly uncertain” as highlighted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

And the recent announcement of the 50% cut to university arts funding will come as a big blow to the already suffering creative industries sector. The decision, made in a bid to redirect spending to subjects considered a ‘strategic priority’ by the government such as medicine and STEM, is a concern if it is to have a detrimental impact on the arts industry talent pipeline.

Final thoughts

Depending on the losses the university sector experiences, it may be that the five year forecasts presented in the Universities UK report do not come to fruition.

However, as the intention of the government is to ‘level up’ and create a ‘place strategy’, surely universities have to play a central role given their huge economic and social potential. And that means investment, not cuts. As the Universities UK report highlights:

“World-class innovation and research assets need support. Training highly skilled people requires investment. Ensuring the benefits of both of these are felt equally around the UK will depend on robust policy and funding decisions.”


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Horizon Europe goes live

Horizon Europe is finally a reality. After months of false starts, soft launches and stalled negotiations, 22 June saw hundreds of funding calls published on the European Commission Funding and Tenders Portal. Researchers, institutions and other organisations can now access the seven-year, €95.5 billion research and innovation programme.

Horizon Europe is the ninth European Research and Innovation Framework programme (2021-2027). In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is one of the key instruments of the European Union’s efforts to steer and accelerate Europe’s recovery, preparedness and resilience.

The initial work programme covers the period 2021-2022 and consists of €14.7 billion in funding, which will be allocated based on competitive calls for proposals.

Around €5.8 billion in total will be invested in research and innovation to complement the European Green Deal and the EU’s commitment to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Supporting the EU’s goal of making the 2020s ‘Europe’s Digital Decade’, core digital technologies will receive around €4 billion over 2021-2022. Finally, direct investments of around €1.9 billion will be made towards helping repair the immediate economic and social damage brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said:

“With 40% of its budget devoted to making Europe more sustainable, this Horizon Europe work programme will make Europe greener and fitter for the digital transformation. Horizon Europe is now fully open for business: I would like to encourage researchers and innovators from all over the EU to apply and find solutions to improve our daily lives.”

Associated Countries: UK in, Switzerland out

Although the European Commission has yet to secure final agreements with non-EU countries on participation in Horizon Europe, a 17 June document revealed a list of 18 countries where association negotiations are ‘being processed or where association is imminent’.

The 18 provisionally associated countries are: Albania; Armenia; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Faroe Islands; Georgia; Iceland; Israel; Kosovo; Moldova; Montenegro; Morocco; North Macedonia; Norway; Serbia; Tunisia; Turkey; Ukraine; and the United Kingdom.

Most notably, while the UK is in, Switzerland has been excluded. Reports cite Swiss government officials as saying the European Commission did not give any notification of its intention to exclude the country from provisional access to Horizon Europe.

Writing on Twitter, Senior Policy Officer at the League of European Research Universities (LERU) Laura Keustermans described the move as not only bad news for Switzerland ‘but also very bad news for everybody involved in EU Research and Innovation’. LERU President Kurt Deketelaere also responded, urging the Swiss Government to work to gain access for the Swiss research and education sector, ‘which benefited greatly from association to EU programs in the past’.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is urging researchers to start applying for Horizon Europe funding, with UK researchers and companies eligible for all Horizon Europe calls, apart from applying for equity funding from the European Innovation Council (EIC). The UK will also have to reach agreement with the Commission on rules for participating in sensitive projects in quantum and space technologies.

Free events mark programme launch

To mark the official opening of Horizon Europe, the European Commission arranged two free-to-air conferences for all citizens and stakeholders.

The European Research and Innovation Days, the Commission’s annual flagship Research and Innovation event, was held on 23-24 June. Policymakers, researchers, innovators, and other stakeholders took part in over 70 sessions and workshops to discuss the future European research and innovation landscape. Sessions included ‘tips and tricks’ for writing Horizon Europe proposals; an overview of the Commission’s Funding & Tenders Portal; discussions over lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic; and an overview of the Africa Initiative in Horizon Europe. Recorded sessions from the event can be accessed via the event platform.

Running from 28 June to 9 July, the Horizon Europe Info Days will provide an in-depth overview of some of the main funding channels provided under Horizon Europe. The sessions will specifically focus on the six Clusters under Pillar II – Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness, ­as well as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, Research Infrastructures, and Widening Participation and Strengthening the ERA (European Research Area) strands of Horizon Europe. With the exception of the Cluster 3 – Civil Security for Society session on 30 June, the event is open for participation without prior registration, and attendees will have the opportunity to ask questions, find out what is new in Horizon Europe and obtain further details about how the programme will operate. Interested parties can access the event’s online portal here.


ResearchConnect: the essential source of research funding information

This post was written by our colleagues in ResearchConnect, a specialist research funding database built for and designed by the international research community.

ResearchConnect’s up-to-the-minute database covers all of the key research disciplines and is updated by an expert team who monitor and report on a wide range of funding sources including charitable trusts, government, research councils, foundations and corporate sponsors. The ResearchConnect team maintains regular contact with funding administrators and policy managers across a wide range of sources, providing advance notice of new funding opportunities and policy changes.

For more information, visit the ResearchConnect website.