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Spinout success: commercialising academic research

Research and teaching in UK universities is widely recognised to be among the best in the world.  In fact, the University of Oxford has topped the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020 for the fourth year in a row.

However, in November last year, venture capital firm Octopus Ventures published a new measure of UK universities’ success – the Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking.

Instead of focusing on traditional measures of success, such as research, teaching and citation impact, Octopus Ventures’ new index measures UK universities’ effectiveness at translating this research into commercial success via the creation of “quality, investor-ready spinout companies”.

The results are a little surprising – with Queen’s University Belfast reaching the top spot, ahead of big players such as the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford.

In this blog post, we consider these findings in more detail, and discuss the potential to further capitalise on the potential of spinouts in the UK, and the key factors that underpin their success.

A brief history of spinouts

A university spinout has been defined by Octopus Ventures asa registered company set up to exploit intellectual property (IP) that has originated from within a university”.

In other words, it is a company that has been established based on ideas derived from a university’s research.  Often, former or current researchers are directly involved in the management team, and start-up funding is provided by the university (or one of its connected venture funds).

UK universities have been allowed to commercialise the results of their research since the mid-1980s. Between 2003 and 2018, approximately 3000 IP-based spinouts were created by UK universities.

Since 2010, there has been a notable increase in investment into university spinouts – both in terms of the number of deals achieved and the amount of money invested in university spinouts, from both private and public investment sources.

High rates of success

There is good reason for this increased investment – the survival rates of spinouts are high compared to other types of start up enterprise.  Research published in 2018 by law firm Anderson Law found that nine out of ten spinouts survive beyond five years.  By way of comparison, only two out of ten new enterprises survive beyond five years in the wider start-up environment.

Indeed, many spinouts not only survive, but thrive.  The UK has produced a large number of very successful spinouts – for example, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a University of Oxford spin-out company that has gone on to reach a £1.5 billion valuation.  ARM Holdings is another example – a designer of smartphone chips, established by the University of Cambridge, and acquired by Japanese firm Softbank for £24 billion in 2018.

Unrealised opportunities

However, while the UK has seen a number of high profile spinout success stories, Octopus Ventures, argue that there is yet more untapped potential to be realised:

The UK has produced a host of successful university spinouts, but there are many unrealised opportunities that have been left in labs or got lost on their funding journey. These could be worth trillions of pounds to the UK economy.”

This potential is perhaps best illustrated by looking at the unrivalled success of many universities in the United States.  Take, for example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  MIT has been the genesis for around 26,000 spinout companies, with a combined annual company turnover of US$2 trillion.  This is a huge amount from one university – and is equivalent to around 65% of the UK’s entire annual GDP!  The resultant spinouts have also created in the region of 3.3 million jobs. MIT clearly illustrates the huge potential that exists to capitalise on universities’ research.

Index results

Back in the UK, this massive potential has yet to be realised.  Indeed, one of the key aims of the new Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking is to identify where this potential exists, and which universities are making notable progress towards capitalising on it.

The key data points included are:

  • total funding per university;
  • total spinouts created per university;
  • total disclosures per university;
  • total patents per university;
  • total sales from spinouts per university.

An interesting element of the index is that it is also adjusted to account for the total funding that a university receives.  This means that it is not dominated by Russell Group universities simply on the basis of them receiving the most funding.

Indeed, Queen’s University Belfast was ranked first – putting it ahead of both the University of Cambridge (2nd place) and the University of Oxford (9th place) in terms of its production of spinout companies and successful exits, relative to the total funding received.

Queen’s University Belfast, through QUBIS Ltd, the university’s commercialisation arm, has had a number of spinout successes, including KainosAndor Technology, and Fusion Antibodies, all of which have been listed on the London Stock Exchange.

In Scotland, the highest ranking university was the University of Dundee (6th), which has had a number of successful spinouts, including Platinum Informatics, which specialises in the provision of software to analyse ‘big data’.

What makes a successful spinout company?

As well as identifying the most effective universities in terms of spinouts, the Octopus Ventures report also looks at the shared success factors that have contributed to their effectiveness.

There are three key factors:

  • Funding – Access to early funding is essential to success. Universities that ranked highly in the index were ones that raised funds to help get ideas off the drawing board. As Simon King, a partner in Octopus Ventures states: “Universities that enable early-stage proof of concepts and prototyping by making early-stage funds available, either internally through their own funds or through collaborative schemes with other funds are more successful at creating spinouts.  That’s a key takeaway.”
  • Talent – the issue of talent is considered a ‘consistently challenging’ issue for spinouts.  There is a huge demand for the right skills, and spinouts are often viewed as being high-risk propositions compared to more established enterprises.  Other challenges include a lack of academics’ understanding of the business world, and limited incentives for them to engage in the commercial world in light of the pressure to ‘publish or perish’.
  • Collaboration – As well as university-industry collaboration, collaboration between different universities was a key factor in the creation of successful spinouts. Collaboration helps to increase both scale and capacity, whilst also helping to attract and retain top talent.

Future support for spinouts

Measuring the relative effectiveness of UK universities’ ability to commercialise their research provides a number of signposts for the future in regards to how best to support and further develop this potential.

This is increasingly important given the economic uncertainties surrounding Brexit and the availability of a number of European funding streams once the UK leaves the European Union.

The UK’s Industrial Strategy places a clear emphasis on academic entrepreneurialism as a driver of economic growth.  And in 2018, the UK Government launched the £100m Connecting Capability Fund to support university collaboration in research commercialisation.

Commercialising academic research is far more complex, risky and expensive than establishing a typical start-up.  But their potential contribution to the economy, and wider society, is huge.


Further reading: our blog posts on higher education

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Former Universities Minister sets out plan to increase R&D funding in the UK

The relationship between the Government, the private sector and universities in promoting R&D and the commercialisation of research is explored in a new report by former Universities Minister and Visiting Professor at King’s College London, David Willetts.

The report, published by The Policy Institute at King’s College London, sets out his personal view of the current state of research funding policy. While welcoming cross-party plans to raise R&D spending from 1.7% of the UK’s GDP to 2.4%, the report proposes a series of measures and guiding principles that would help Government to both achieve this ambition and further strengthen the UK’s research sector.

Boosting R&D funding

The plan identifies priority areas of additional funding, in particular the need for a ‘substantial increase’ in the core budgets of the Research Councils, covering a wide range of disciplines.

However, the report goes further and suggests that the current political consensus regarding the need for more funding for R&D should also be used to tackle some of the nation’s biggest and longest-running research challenges, particularly applying and commercialising research. Overall, the system should be well-balanced between the pursuit of fundamental understanding and of usefulness.

Willetts argues that some of the UK’s problems in applying research (in comparison to other countries) arise because much more of our research is conducted in universities where the incentives work against successful commercialisation. This includes the emphasis on academic publication as a measure of performance.

At the core of the report is a 12-point plan designed to boost British science and technology and ultimately attain more value from it.

University research:

  • Fund the full economic cost of a research project instead of the current 80%.
  • Announce that counting start-ups is no measure of a university’s performance in promoting innovation.
  • Discourage universities from going for such big stakes in companies created by their academic staff, which is currently a barrier to private investment.
  • Remove the requirement that all eligible researchers should be submitted to the Research Excellence Framework – to boost practical applied research and cut bureaucracy in academies.

Non-university research

  • Create a pot of public funding to support catapults, technology parks and other non-university institutes.
  • Restore greater freedoms to public research establishments.

Key technologies

  • Immediately launch government investment in key technologies.
  • Create a new technology strategy based on expert horizon scanning for new technologies.

Business

  • Boost Innovate UK’s SMART awards budget by around £300 million a year.
  • Better align bodies such as Innovate UK, the British Business Bank and Business Growth Fund so that new technology companies can access funding schemes more easily.
  • Insist that 1% of public procurement budgets for large infrastructure programmes is used to promote innovation.
  • Simplify Research Council grant processes and speed up how UKRI investments are reviewed and approved.

A strategic approach to innovation

The report also examines Conservative Party proposals to introduce a British version of the American DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). The history of ARPA/DARPA in the US has been characterised by an approach which is free from the constraints of peer review and more able to support risky projects with a significant chance of failure. The report outlines how such a body might work in the UK, and states that lessons could be learned from how confidently US funders track and invest in technology compared with a relative lack of confidence and doubts about the UK’s capabilities that exists within the UK.

Promoting the UK’s research community

Launching the report David Willetts said: “These proposals are intended to promote one of Britain’s greatest single intellectual and cultural achievements – the vigour and creativeness of our research community. From producing Nobel Prize winners to supporting technicians maintaining and developing the kit which makes their discoveries possible, excellent R&D underpins Britain’s distinctive and wide-ranging research base. But we need to ensure extra funding is well-spent, enabling us to harness research to create wealth and prosperity to boost our living standards in the future. This 12-point plan shows how we could achieve that.”


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Closing the race attainment gap: a new report aims to help universities move forward

Image: Universities UK

On the face of it, the UK’s university sector is an international success story. UK universities attract global talent, valuable income and investment, produce world-leading research, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and improve people’s everyday lives in countless ways. Britain’s universities are also more racially and culturally diverse than ever before.

But a recent report has shone a spotlight on fundamental barriers to racial equality at UK universities, indicating that a student’s race and ethnicity can significantly affect their degree outcomes. The Universities UK (UUK) / National Union of Students (NUS) report highlights significant gaps in attainment between white students and their black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) peers, finding that 81% of white students graduated with first and upper second class honours in 2017/18, compared to just 68% of BAME students. That’s an attainment gap of 13%.

The report echoes findings from the Office for Students (OfS), the independent regulator for higher education in England. Earlier this year, the OfS reported stark gaps in achievement for black students, and also found that higher numbers of BAME students were dropping out of university before completing their courses.

Why are BAME students not doing as well at university compared with their white counterparts?

The UUK/NUS research identified four factors that are contributing to the attainment gap:

  1. Varying degrees of satisfaction among different student groups with the higher education curricula, and with the user-friendliness of learning, teaching and assessment practices.
  2. Relationships between staff and students and among students: a sense of ‘belonging’ emerged as a key determinant of student outcomes.
  3. Recurring differences in how students experience higher education, how they network and how they draw on external support were noted. Students’ financial situations also affect their student experience and their engagement with learning.
  4. The extent to which students feel supported and encouraged in their daily interactions within their institutions and with staff members was found to be a key variable.

 How universities can improve outcomes

As part of its research, UUK and NUS engaged with students, the higher education sector and external organisations to identify the most significant steps needed for success in reducing attainment differentials:

  1. Strong leadership – university leaders and senior managers need to demonstrate a commitment to removing the BAME attainment gap and lead by example.
  2. Having conversations about race and changing the culture – universities and students need more opportunities to have open, meaningful and constructive conversations about race, racism and what is causing the attainment gap.
  3. Developing racially diverse and inclusive environments – A greater focus is needed from across the sector, working with their students, on ensuring that BAME students have a good sense of belonging at their university, and an understanding of how a poor sense of belonging might be contributing to low levels of engagement and progression to postgraduate study.
  4. Assess the existing mix of data and evidence used to understand the causes of the attainment gap – The sector needs to take a more scientific approach to tackling the attainment gap, gathering and scrutinising data in a far more comprehensive way than currently, in order to inform discussions among university leaders, academics, practitioners and students.

The report also provides a checklist to help university senior leaders to move forward with their own strategies. Among the actions on the checklist are:

  • consider whether coaching, development opportunities or programmes are needed to give leaders the confidence to talk about race and take a leading role in opening conversations.
  • consider mechanisms for recognising (and perhaps rewarding) staff and students who press for the removal of racial inequalities.
  • take responsibility for ensuring that appropriate resources are dedicated to removing the attainment gap, including for any appropriate tailored interventions, research and expertise in data analysis.

Learning from what works

Another important recommendation in the report is that universities should share and learn from evidence of what works and what does not. Case studies throughout the report demonstrate that higher education institutions across the country are trying to close the attainment gap:

The University of Manchester and the university’s students’ union have been working in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Birmingham to deliver a Diversity and Inclusion Student Ambassador Programme to tackle the causes of differential outcomes for BAME undergraduate students and those from low socio-economic groups. Key features include creation of safe spaces, where students and staff can engage in open dialogue on inclusive learning and teaching environments, academic support and well-being; and training student ambassadors to safely challenge racism, microaggressions and discrimination.

Intercultural awareness workshops have helped students at Glasgow Caledonian University to develop a better understanding of different cultural norms and values. The programme provides a baseline for first-year students to develop their understanding and recognise the unconscious bias that exists within global academic, social and working environments. It has already won a Student Engagement Award and been shortlisted for an NUS Scotland 2019 diversity award.

The University of Arts London has developed a data dashboard – the academic enhancement model (AEM) – which gives accessible information to course teams about all aspects of the student experience and differentials. The AEM is a cross-university approach to removing attainment differentials, based on agreed data thresholds for attainment and student satisfaction scores. Courses that fall below these thresholds work with AEM leads to create co-designed AEM support packages. The approach has contributed to UAL’s success in tackling attainment issues: in 2018, the university saw a 4.9% reduction in its BAME attainment gap.

Closing the gap, reaping the rewards

The report has united universities and students in highlighting the race attainment gap, understanding the reasons behind it and tackling the problem.

Baroness Amos, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), who co-led the report, said: “Our universities are racially and culturally diverse, compared to many other sectors, but we are failing a generation of students if we don’t act now to reduce the BAME attainment gap. Amatey Doku, NUS vice-president for higher education, added that for far too long universities had presided over significant gaps in attainment between BAME students and white students. “From decolonising the curriculum to more culturally competent support services, many students and students’ unions have been fighting and campaigning for action in this area for years.

Now that the issue has been raised, it’s up to universities to take action so that all students – whatever their background – are given every opportunity to reap the many rewards that higher education can bring.


If you’re interested in developments in higher education, take a look at our recent blog posts on the subject:

Out of the classroom and into the world: the changing face of teaching in higher education

Since 2017, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) has assessed the quality of undergraduate teaching in England’s higher education providers. The TEF rates universities as Gold, Silver or Bronze, and was introduced by the government which felt that universities were too focused on research.

It’s still too soon to say what the impact of the TEF will be on universities or student choice. One commentator believes it will “…lead to distorted results, misleading rankings and a system which lacks validity and is unnecessarily vulnerable to being gamed.” Others see TEF as the opportunity to drive a culture shift in teaching, resulting in “…innovative ways of teaching, more workshops and closer relationships with industry and the communities in which they were based.”

In any case, TEF may prompt universities to rethink their approach to teaching, adopting new ideas on everything from flipped learning to the learning space itself.

Powerhouses for the knowledge economy

“Higher education, is faced with the challenge of preparing itself to fulfill its mission adequately in a world in transformation and to meet the needs and requirements of 21st century society, which will be a society of knowledge, information technology and education”.

When those words first appeared, twenty-one years ago, in a UNESCO conference report, we were only beginning to get an inkling of the dramatic changes that were about to transform the face of higher education.

Since then, the knowledge economy has mushroomed, powered by a new wave of digital technologies. Automation, robotics, digital technology, the internet of things and artificial intelligence are now driving what’s known as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Some have suggested that the impact of these changes on universities may be as profound as the effect of printing on medieval monasteries.

In many ways, higher education has risen to the challenges of the knowledge economy, and has often been at the cutting edge of technological innovations. But for many universities, the traditional model of campus-based teaching has not altered since the 19th century, and there are now calls for higher education to adapt its teaching and learning models for the new age.

New routes to higher education

Even before the dawn of the high tech era, higher education was making efforts to change the way we learn. The Open University (OU), this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, was one of the first to offer alternatives to the traditional classroom-based teaching format. The OU brought higher education into people’s living rooms via late-night programmes on television. Its summer schools and local seminars gave students opportunities to exchange ideas and enjoy the full experience of a university education. And the OU quickly embraced the possibilities offered by the internet for interactive learning. Since its establishment, the OU has enabled more than two million people worldwide to achieve their study goals – many of whom didn’t have the opportunity, flexibility or the funds to reach their potential in the traditional world of higher education.

The MOOC moves in

But time has not stood still, and the OU is now one of many providers of online education courses. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – many of them free, or cheaper than university tuition fees – provide an affordable and flexible way for people around the world to learn new skills. The range of MOOCs has grown rapidly, taking in almost every subject, from environmental engineering to English as a second language, computer science to business and management.

And MOOCs have been moving in to compete for students who might otherwise have studied at a traditional university. For example the University of California, San Diego offers a micromasters course in data science that promises to equip students with the skills that form the basis of data science. The course is fee-paying, but the university underlines the long-term value of the course, highlighting the thousands of job vacancies in data science. The course website also includes endorsements from companies pledging that applications from individuals who have completed the course will have definite advantages over rival candidates. Students can take the course at their own pace, completing it whenever they choose, and located almost anywhere in the world. In addition, the course offers a pathway to Rochester Institute of Technology’s Master of Science degree in Data Science.

The advent of MOOCs has proved extremely popular, and today distinguished universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with more than 800 institutes of higher education around the world, now offer their own MOOCs.

Partnership approaches to skills development

As knowledge becomes the main driver of economic growth, employers are demanding higher level skills. A 2018 report published by Universities UK argued that universities are extremely well placed to help business and the wider economy to meet these challenges. But the report also acknowledged the need to change and adapt:

“The linear model of education–employment–career will no longer be sufficient. The pace of change is accelerating, necessitating more flexible partnerships, quicker responses, different modes of delivery and new combinations of skills and experience. Educators and employers need to collaborate more closely, and develop new and innovative partnerships and flexible learning approaches.”

In many cases, this is already happening. The University of East Anglia, for example is promoting entrepreneurialism through its in-house enterprise centre. The centre is home to several SMEs, and provides a space for students to collaborate with commercial firms, and to discover, develop and apply their entrepreneurial skills.

Another good example of university-employer partnerships is Coventry University’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering. This hi-tech production facility is a collaboration between the university and Unipart Manufacturing Group, which manufactures exhausts and other car components. It also provides training for students, with their time spent working on campus, as well as in workshops and at the manufacturing facility. In addition, this ‘faculty on the factory floor’ provides jobs – many students go straight from their degree courses to being full-time employees.

The changing face of teaching

Universities are central to knowledge creation and exchange, and we’ll be relying on them to be the engines of the knowledge economy. New approaches to teaching can ensure they rise to the challenge.


Read more from our blog on higher education:

Turning the tide on perceptions of value: what do students think value for money really means?

A little over a year and half since we last wrote about the value of higher education (HE), which highlighted a downward trend in perception of value, it would seem the tide may be turning.

As we previously highlighted, one of the headline findings of the Higher Education Policy Institute’s (HEPI’s) 2017 Student Academic Experience Survey was falling perceptions of value for money, with the percentage of students perceiving university not to be value for money almost doubling in the previous five years. But the 2018 survey highlights a distinct turnaround, with students reporting “statistically significant improvements in perceptions of value for money from their higher education experience.” Could this be the start of a new trend?

‘Promising upturn’

Among the main highlights of the 2018 survey, which describes a “promising upturn”, include:

  • 38% of students in the UK perceive ‘good or very good’ value from their HE course – an increase of three percentage points from last year’s survey, reversing a five-year downward trend
  • fewer students studying in the UK (32%) perceive ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ value, compared with 34% in 2017
  • there is a clear, statistically significant, improvement among students from England, representing the largest number of students, where 35% report ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value
  • there has been an improvement among students domiciled in Scotland (though not statistically significant) where 60% of students surveyed perceive ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value, continuing to report the most positive opinions overall, while students from Wales and EU students studying in the UK report similar perceptions of value as last year, 48% and 47% respectively. Perceptions of value in Northern Ireland remain in decline – albeit not statistically significant
  • Students at institutions which secured a Gold award in the Teaching Excellence Framework are more likely to perceive they have received good value, but there is no noticeable difference on this measure between Silver and Bronze-rated institutions

While it should not be forgotten that almost a third of students still perceive poor value, which remains a concern, this reversal of a five-year trend is undoubtedly encouraging. Moreover, what makes the latest HEPI survey particularly interesting is that for the first time, it includes evidence on what lies behind these perceptions.

What does value for money mean?

As our previous blog showed, the increasing cost of HE has contributed to the decline in perceived value for money as many believe the financial cost is not worth the career prospects. But it isn’t all about the financial element, although, as has been previously argued, perceptions of quality are not always clearly articulated. To help make things clearer, the latest survey incorporates new sections on: what factors relate to good or poor value, happiness with subject choice and experiences of different ethnic groups.

These new sections provide greater insight into just what students perceive as value for money. Interestingly, when asked about what factors influence their perceptions of value (chosen from a pre-defined, randomised list), 68% of students who felt they received ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value for money regard teaching quality as the most important factor behind this, followed closely by course content (67%) and facilities (62%).

None of the top five reasons for perceiving ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value related to financial cost, whereas price dominated the list for poor value where two out of the five most popular answers related to cost – tuition fees (62%) and cost of living (37%). The survey suggests that these findings indicate that cost and value are difficult to separate in the minds of students and that a perception of value for money can be difficult to attain given the level of current fees.

Career prospects and campus environment and university buildings were also cited as significant factors driving good value. This suggests that investment in the physical environment should be included among other priorities, given its status as a ‘major contributor’ to the student experience.

No time for complacency

Despite these promising findings about the student experience, there are still real concerns. Perhaps somewhat worrying is the finding that past gains in teaching quality have not been built upon, with students’ ratings of teaching staff down slightly on last year. Given the importance of teaching quality in perceptions of value, if this does not change it could very well contribute to a return to the downward trend in value perceptions.

Other concerns highlighted by the survey, include  perceptions of the wellbeing of students, which remain relatively low and continue to fall. In addition, some ethnic minorities tend to experience barriers and have lower perceptions of value.

As highlighted by Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI and a co-author of the report, the survey “exposes the areas where improvements are needed.” He also argues that “institutions have to work harder to ensure all students are catered for in full.”

Nevertheless, the survey emphasises that the fact the student experience remains positive should be recognised, particularly given the level of financial burden that students take on and the widening range of alternative routes available. Hopefully, the next survey will reveal a continuation of the upward trend in perceptions of value.


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UK slipping to third place in international higher education – are UK universities losing their competitive edge?

Two guys taking a selfie at graduation.

By Steven McGinty

Last year, Professor Simon Marginson published a report that would have worried university chiefs more than a BBC investigation into their eye-watering salaries.

The concern? That UK universities are no longer able to compete with the world’s elite universities and have slipped from second to third in the international higher education rankings.

The Marginson report

For many years, the UK has sat comfortably behind the United States as the second most popular destination for international students.

However, Professor Marginson’s analysis of the data shows that since 2012 there has been moderate growth in the numbers studying at British universities. Interestingly, this is also the year the UK Government cancelled the post-study work visa, which allowed non-EU students to stay and work in the UK for up to two years after graduation, and replaced it with the right to stay for four months after graduation.

In contrast, the research shows Australia has seen a surge of international students studying at their universities, rising from 249,868 in 2012 to 335,512 in 2016. This is still fewer than were studying in the UK in 2015 (430,687). However, Australian government figures show that student numbers increased by 14.7% in 2017, with this high growth continuing into 2018.

And, Professor Marginson predicts that when the full data becomes available the UK will only be slightly ahead of Australia, or that Australia may have already climbed into second place. In either scenario – and with Brexit on the horizon – this news will be undoubtedly worrying for universities, who have a long tradition of welcoming students and academics from across the globe.

Times Higher Education (THE) World Reputation Rankings

Although UK universities are respected internationally, this is not the first piece of evidence to suggest international students might be tempted elsewhere.

In 2018, the Times Higher Education (THE) World Reputation Rankings, which scores universities based on the quality of their research and teaching, highlighted that British universities either stayed the same or fell down the international league table. In particular, Durham University has lost its place amongst the top 100 universities in the world, whilst University College London and Imperial College London have dropped down the rankings.

Phil Baty, THE’s editorial director of global rankings, argues that the UK’s elite universities cannot take their international reputation for granted and suggests the findings should “give pause for serious thought as the country seeks to champion its status as ‘global Britain’ in a post-Brexit world.”

The competition

Although recent immigration changes and uncertainty over Brexit present challenges for British universities, the policies adopted by other countries have also impacted on their competitiveness.

In the US, President Barak Obama’s liberal approach to immigration resulted in a 26% increase in international students between 2011-2015 – this is significantly higher than the UK’s 2.6% growth rate for the same period. However, more recently, President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy has led to the tightening of the student visa system and increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. In turn, the US has experienced a decline in international student numbers, particularly from Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Canada.

Canadian universities have attempted to capitalise on these political changes by marketing themselves as a more tolerant North American alternative. For example, the University of Montreal has set up a travel fund to help international students attend US conferences, as some may face difficulties entering the country. Policies, such as these, are likely to have led to a 20% increase in international students accepting places in the Autumn of 2017.

In Australia, there has been a dramatic change in direction. In 2009, violence against Indian international students ignited protests in the streets of Melbourne and Sydney. In response, the Australian Government made a significant diplomatic effort to salvage Australia’s reputation as a welcoming place for international students, including by relaxing the regulatory and financial requirements for study.

How can the UK foster competitiveness?

Education Insight founder, Janet Ilieva, suggests that the UK Government should work with higher education institutions to coordinate their international marketing efforts, as well as provide post study work opportunities.

Similarly, Universities UK, have stressed the importance of bringing back work visas for overseas graduates. They highlight that competitors such as the United States and Canada allow students to stay and work for three years after graduating, and four in the case of Australia.

To mitigate against Brexit, the Economist has discovered that some universities are considering setting up a European campus in order to avoid immigration restrictions.

Policy reforms and practical support, such as those highlighted above, would certainly improve British universities’ ability to compete with up-and-coming international student destinations. However, the real question is, is there enough political will to make this happen?


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Gender pay gap at universities could get even worse – here’s why

File 20181204 34148 fah1wc.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

This guest blog was written by Nisreen Ameen, Lecturer at Queen Mary University London.

Britain has one of the largest gender pay gaps in the European Union, with women earning roughly 21% less than men. This means that women in UK universities today are still earning less than their male colleagues. So although laws on equal pay have been in place for more than 40 years, there is still a large gender pay gap in UK universities.

The difference in hourly pay between men and women is 15% in top UK universities and 37% in other universities. What’s more, men have most of the top jobs in UK universities, while women have more of the lower-paid jobs.

And this “gender pay gap” may keep getting wider if women aren’t supported to develop their digital skills. This is because women tend to have less advanced digital skills than men – skills that are increasingly in demand for university lecturer roles. And as universities around rely more extensively on digital technology, they need employees who have creative digital skills – which means women are more likely to miss out on jobs, promotions and pay increases.

Wanted: technical talent

The use of technology is now just part of the day job for anyone involved in teaching and learning in universities. Universities use technology to teach and communicate with students online – which can help to improve a student’s learning experience. Staff are also expected to use online learning and mobile learning platforms to teach, assess and talk to students in a virtual environment.

Universities also plan to use more advanced technology. Gamification is on the rise in universities. This is where universities personalise a student’s learning, using game design thinking in non-game applications. Wearable devices, such as an Apple Watch or Google Glass, can also encourage learners to get more involved in the subject. This type of technology will most likely be used more in universities over the coming years.

And as women in higher education are generally less likely to be skilled in using these technologies, they may well be left behind – widening the gender pay gap in higher education – while also making it harder for women to progress in their careers.

Digital skills divide

Our research which looks at the gender gap in smartphone adoption and use in Arab countries shows there is a wide gap in the way men and women use technology in some parts of the world. And we found similar patterns in the UK. Men have more advanced digital skills than women, and women are underrepresented in the technology sector, specifically in the digital sector in education.

This “digital divide” begins at a very early age in school. It continues into higher education – in the UK there is one of the highest gender gaps in technology-related courses among all university courses in the world.

Technology is advancing quickly, so academics and others working in higher education constantly have to update their skills. Without these skills, women in the sector are at a disadvantage when it comes to promotion and pay rises. So it’s more important than ever for universities to provide training and other programmes that help women develop their digital skills.

Closing the gender gap in digital skills would remove one factor contributing to the gender pay gap in UK universities. It would increase the chances of women being employed in the sector and make it easier for them to develop their careers. Tapping into female talent in technology would bring huge benefits to universities.

And above all, it would help to close the digital skills gap – while helping to build a more equal and fairer society.The Conversation


Nisreen Ameen, Lecturer in Information Technology Management, Queen Mary University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Co-location of researchers: challenges and opportunities before and after Brexit

“International collaboration and mobility is integral to life as an active researcher across all disciplines and at all career stages.” British Academy, 2017

Collaboration is a core part of the work of researchers. In recent decades, growing numbers of researchers have taken advantage of improved mobility and support from policymakers to travel and work with others in a variety of disciplines.

The benefits of co-location

So it was interesting to read a recent toolkit on co-location of researchers, published by What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, which looked at interventions that encourage the co-location of researchers, and considered the effectiveness of policies that specifically encourage co-location with the objective of increasing the quantity and quality of scientific output.

The toolkit’s review of evidence found that:

  • Co-location can raise the quality of research.
  • Spillovers may exist between researchers in different academic fields or commercial sectors, but the greatest positive effects of co-location occur for similar activities.
  • Science park co-location impacts positively on firm-level patenting of research, but spillover effects may die away rapidly with distance.
  • Temporary co-location (such as conferences and workshops) can also be effective in inducing collaboration and innovation.
  • Previously collaborating labs continue to work together, although the quality of research suffers with separations.

Co-location in practice

Co-location can occur within a national or international context. A good example of international research mobility in action has been highlighted in a paper published by RESEARCHconnect, which provides information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK research community.

Fifteen partners from thirteen countries, including the USA and Canada, have joined forces to improve the capacities for marine-based research in the ice-covered Arctic Ocean. The ARICE (Arctic Research Icebreaker Consortium) project aims to better coordinate the existing polar research fleet, to offer scientists access to six research icebreakers, and to collaborate closely with the maritime industry.

For researchers, project sponsors and hosts, the importance of face-to-face collaboration on projects such as ARICE cannot be overestimated. As Dr Chris Coey, Research Development Support Officer, Division of Research and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Salford, told RESEARCHconnect:

“The advantages of international mobility are, for researchers, access to prestige networks, resources and infrastructure not available at home. Reputations are burnished, arguably in part through mobility itself, collaborations are established or reinforced and, publications and other outputs are achieved. Metrics show that these international collaborations are higher profile and higher quality.”

Of course, arranging and managing co-location can be challenging, particularly when working across languages, cultures and disciplines. And although technology provides alternative ways of exchanging information, the evidence suggests that teleconferencing is no substitute for co-location. A 2017 study of the role of international collaboration and mobility in research noted that “travel was seen to be important in building international collaborations, by helping develop stronger relationships and a broader understanding of each other’s strengths and interests.”

Co-location after Brexit

But while collaboration – particularly international collaboration – has become a key aspect of research, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union is causing uncertainty in the research community. The EU has been a significant source of research funding, and Brexit is now forcing researchers to consider alternatives.

A 2017 report from Digital Science Consultancy for Universities UK explored the challenges and opportunities facing UK research in the post-Brexit landscape. The authors noted that international collaborative partnerships in research with other EU states make up the largest pool of collaborators with UK research:

“Research undertaken with EU partners like Germany and France is growing faster than with other countries – hence while it is vital that the UK takes every opportunity to be truly global in their outlook, the importance of collaboration with EU partners should not be underestimated.”

At the same time, the report suggested that the UK should be developing new networks and funding arrangements that support collaboration with major research powers outside of Europe.

Regardless of access to EU programmes, enhanced international collaboration could be facilitated by either agreeing partner funding or at least avoiding ‘double jeopardy’ through, for example, a coordinated application process at agency level.”

Speaking to RESEARCHConnect, Dr Chris Coey also highlighted UK sources that provide an alternative to EU funding for international research:

“…this isn’t just the Research Councils but also the larger and more prestigious charitable sources such as Wellcome and the British Academy.”

 Final thoughts

As the What Works toolkit explains, co-location is one of the methods used by policymakers to help encourage the generation and diffusion of new ideas. It enables researchers to share access to expensive equipment, forge links, or simply observe – and learn from – each other.

As the UK prepares to leave the EU, research bodies and researchers themselves will be looking anxiously at the impact of Brexit, while continuing to forge strong partnerships at home and overseas.


RESEARCHconnect is the Idox group’s funding service providing information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK and wider European research community. Focused on researchers at all levels of academia – from undergraduates to senior career researchers – and also including a spectrum of funding opportunities for universities and research institutes, the service offers a comprehensive one-stop-shop of funding information.

Open access is rapidly rising but is it succeeding?

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Image by PLoS via Creative Commons

In an increasingly digital world where accessibility is a common goal, it is no surprise that open access (OA) publishing is increasing at a rapid pace. For UK research, there has been particularly notable growth in OA adoption. In 2016, 37% of UK outputs (25% globally) were freely available immediately on publication, up from 20% in 2014. This figure reached 54% within 12 months of publication – the first time the 50% OA barrier has been breached for UK articles in the Scopus database (Elsevier’s peer-reviewed abstract and citation database).

These are among the findings of a recent report from Universities UK (UUK), Monitoring the transition to open access, which illustrates the growth in OA and its implications. While the advancement of OA is generally seen as a positive outcome, this transition is not without its challenges.

What is open access?

OA is fundamentally about making research outputs freely accessible to all with limited restrictions with regard to reuse.

There are two main routes to OA, as highlighted in the UUK report:

  • Gold or immediate OA – this refers to articles published in an OA form in a journal, allowing immediate access to everyone electronically and free of charge. Publishers can recoup their costs in various ways, including through payments from authors called article processing charges (APCs), or through advertising, donations or other subsidies.
  • Green OA – this refers to the posting of a version of the published article so that it is accessible via a website, institutional or subject repository, scholarly collaboration network or other service. Access to the publication can either be granted immediately or after an agreed embargo period.

OA articles can also be published in hybrid journals which are subscription-based but provide some articles as OA, usually for a fee. According to the UUK report, more than half of UK articles in 2016 were published in hybrid journals, the proportion of which were published on immediate Gold OA terms was 28% – up from just 6% in 2012.

Growth

The numbers and proportions of both OA and hybrid journals have continued to rise, while the proportion of subscription-only journals has fallen. The number of articles published on immediate Gold OA terms is also rising, with a high level of take-up in the UK of hybrid OA options. Particularly notable findings from the report include:

  • the proportion of titles published globally offering immediate OA rose from under 50% in 2012 to just over 60% in 2016; and to nearly 70% for journals in which UK authors have published;
  • the proportion of UK-authored articles published on immediate Gold OA terms rose from 12% in 2012 to 30% in 2016, an annual growth rate of over 30% sustained throughout the period;
  • the global proportion of subscription-based articles accessible in some version, on Green OA terms, within 24 months of publication via a non-publisher website, repository or elsewhere, rose from 19% in 2014 to 38% in 2016, while the UK proportion rose from 23% to 48%;
  • OA articles are downloaded on average between twice and four times as much as non-OA articles; and in the UK, where the numbers of full-text articles in UK repositories increased by more than 60% between 2014 and 2016, the number of article downloads more than doubled from 6 to 12 million.

The rapid rate of growth in the UK appears to demonstrate the effects of policies to promote and support OA. The government has long been committed to the transition to OA, particularly since the Finch Report, and these figures show that the UK is world leading in “a significant global movement which is fundamentally changing the way that research is conceived, conducted, disseminated and rewarded.” (UUK)

Rising costs

Most would argue such growth is a positive outcome but the rise in OA has also contributed to other issues, such as the transitional costs to universities and research funders. The findings show that costs are also rising, and at a rate significantly above inflation. The mean average APC payment rose by 16% between 2013 and 2016, compared with a rise of 5% in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

And the number of APCs paid has grown rapidly, with the ratio between subscription and hybrid APC expenditure falling from roughly 19:1 in 2013 to 6:1 by 2016. There is evidence of various offsetting deals, although these vary significantly and can be complex. The majority of known funding for APCs has however been provided by UK funders. Therefore tools that help universities identify and manage funding, such as RESEARCHconnect, could become even more important.

Concerns have also been raised around the financial implications for learned societies that publish academic journals. Although the findings show that publishing revenues have risen steadily over the period (18%), publishing expenditure has risen by 27%, resulting in falling margins.

A mixed picture is highlighted in terms of societies’ overall financial health, with a sharp rise in the number reporting a loss, although some of the most recent losses arose from strategic decisions or exceptional items. Of course, OA is not the only factor and the wider economic and political uncertainties are recognised as particular risks.

To mitigate the financial risks, societies are diversifying their income streams which could strengthen their role. But despite publishing margins being under increasing pressure, the report identified no evidence of systemic risk to UK learned societies or their broader financial sustainability from OA.

Final thoughts

In terms of the aim of policy in the UK to achieve a shift towards OA, the fast-paced growth can be considered a success. However, as the UUK report shows, there are still a number of challenges that need to be addressed.

According to the Chair of the UUK Open Access Coordination Group, the continued engagement of all stakeholders will be important “to ensure that the transition to open access is maintained, is financially sustainable, and that the benefits to research and to society are maximised.”


RESEARCHconnect is Idox’s latest funding service which provides information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK research community. It supports universities, research institutions and research-intensive companies across Europe in identifying and disseminating R&D funding. In the current economic climate, there is increasing pressure to exploit alternative funding sources and RESEARCHconnect ensures that global funding opportunities will not be missed. Find out more.

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University challenges: excellence, inclusion and the race to win more funding

In May last year, Manchester University announced plans to make 171 staff redundant. Cost savings were among the reasons for the staff cutbacks, but the university also highlighted other factors, including the need for improvements in the quality of its research and student experience to ensure financial sustainability, and to achieve its ambition to be a world leading institution.

Although Manchester was able to achieve its staff reductions through voluntary severance, other universities have also had to announce staff cutbacks,  including Portsmouth, Liverpool, Heriot-Watt and Southampton. And these institutions are not alone in facing such demanding challenges.

Higher education institutions across the UK are competing against each other and against international rivals to attract funding and students. At the same time, universities, particularly among the prestigious Russell Group institutions, are under pressure to increase participation by more black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. All of this is set against a background of debates about value for money in higher education, and concerns about Brexit. It’s no surprise that many universities are worried about their future.

Competition: national…

Recent changes to the higher education sector, such as the removal of the cap on student numbers, the entry of private sector providers, and the introduction of a teaching excellence framework have driven universities to become more competitive. Some have built new facilities, or joined forces with business to create technology parks, while others have closed departments that are expensive to run, such as modern languages. A growing number are also turning to financial markets to fund their expansion plans.

…and international

While UK universities have a world-class reputation, they face strong competition from overseas institutions. This year’s world university rankings reported that of the 76 UK universities in the worldwide top 1000, 41 improved their position since last year, while 14 remained in the same position. But while this was the best ever UK performance the compilers of the rankings warned that rising class sizes and the UK’s ability to attract overseas students post-Brexit could have a negative impact on future placings. It’s also becoming clear that global league tables themselves are having an impact on universities.

Added to this, the uncertainty over Brexit is already having an impact on university research funding. Official figures published at the end of 2017 showed that there had been a downturn in both UK participation in, and funding from, the flagship Horizon 2020 project. The need to find alternative sources of funding is pressing, as can be seen in the success of RESEARCHconnect, a tool to help universities identify and manage funding opportunities.

The struggle to widen participation

The proportion of people going to university has risen dramatically in the past fifty years. In the 1960s, five per cent of young people went into higher education; today, around half of young people do. Universities have committed themselves to widen participation, but the statistics suggest they are struggling to achieve this, particularly concerning students from BAME and disadvantaged communities.

Figures published earlier this year recorded a 0.1 percentage point increase in the proportion of state-educated students who started full-time undergraduate courses in the autumn of 2016, compared with the previous year. The statistics showed a slight rise in the proportion of students from disadvantaged areas, but critics have argued that this was cancelled out by the fall in part-time students (who are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds). In nine out of the 24 Russell Group of universities, the proportion of state school pupils fell.

Further evidence of the country’s leading universities’ difficulties in widening participation has been brought to light by David Lammy MP. His enquiries on the number of ethnic minority students offered a place at Oxford and Cambridge Universities have found that more than a third of Oxford’s colleges admitted three or fewer black applicants between 2015 and 2017. For each of the six years between 2010 and 2015, on average, a quarter of Cambridge University colleges failed to make any offers to black British applicants.

Moving away from “one size fits all”

The government says it is determined to ensure that everyone, no matter what their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education. In 2018, the new Office for Students (OfS) was launched, merging the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access. The OfS aims to regulate higher education in the same way that bodies such as Ofwat and Ofcom regulate the water and telecoms sectors. Its Director of Fair Access and Participation has a particular remit to ensure that higher education institutions are doing all they can to support under-represented groups.

A 2018 report has suggested that the OfS “has the potential to be an agent of profound change, particularly with regard to widening participation.” Among the reports contributors, there was a consensus that widening participation needs to be thought of with a broader scope:

“…‘one size fits all’ solutions will not work if we wish to make higher education representative of the diverse society it serves. Different groups such as care leavers, refugees or those with physical disabilities or mental health problems have different needs, and support should be tailored accordingly.”

Changing the face of higher education

Clearly higher education is facing enormous challenges. But for staff and students of universities, there are concerns about the forces of change that are transforming universities from communities of learners and scholars into businesses.  Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King’s College London, has commented:

“If the driving ethos, the thing which directs your behaviour day on day is maximising your income, maximising your position in the league tables in order to maximise your reputation and your fees, that means that you behave in a way that is very different from a traditional university where that wasn’t the driving force. You do get the sense that if that is 90 per cent of what is being thought about by central management, you are fundamentally changing the institution.”

Time will tell whether those changes are for better or for worse.


RESEARCHconnect supports universities, research institutions and research-intensive companies across Europe in identifying and disseminating R&D funding. In the current economic climate, there is increasing pressure to exploit alternative funding sources and RESEARCHconnect ensures that global funding opportunities will not be missed. Find out more.

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