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Next Government must harness full potential of UK’s research-intensive universities for a green, healthy and resilient future

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Russell Group publishes manifesto setting out vision for a bright future powered by research, innovation and future skills development

The Russell Group has urged the next UK Government to match the ambition shown by our international competitors with a long-term commitment to be a leader in the G7 in R&D investment, helping to harness the power of world-leading research-intensive universities and strengthen the UK’s economy and resilience.

Russell Group analysis shows that an additional £4 billion in public R&D funding per year by 2029/30 is needed to sustainably meet a commitment of at least 3% of GDP invested in R&D. A stretch target of 3.5% GDP investment in R&D by 2034 would bring the UK closer to competitors in the OECD.

There is cross-party consensus of the importance of R&D in driving national and regional growth, with Science Minister George Freeman suggesting there should be a new R&D investment target for the UK of 3.5% of GDP by 2033, and Labour calling for a long-term and strategic approach to R&D policy, including a ten-year funding settlement.

Russell Group analysis shows that to meet those ambitions, steady and predictable increases in public investment in R&D will be needed. This will leverage significant private investment and allow universities to work with partners to increase capacity and capabilities, advance knowledge, and position the UK as a global powerhouse in science and research from which everyone can benefit.

The analysis forms part of the Russell Group’s manifesto ‘A Bright Future’ released today (9 November 2023), detailing some of the key areas where universities and the next Government can work together to support future research and development and skills and workforce training in the UK.

A Bright Future outlines how research-intensive universities such as those in the Russell Group already add significant value to the UK, but are keen to do even more to drive sustainable economic growth, create new jobs and boost public services.

With proposals covering the economy, skills, health, the environment, and the UK as a global leader for research, ideas contained in the manifesto are designed to help create opportunities to advance knowledge and innovation, including:

  • An additional £80m investment each year in Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) supplements, which underpins universities’ core innovation activities, that would deliver a return of nearly £1bn to our economy and society
  • A new £400m ‘Spark Fund’ to support hundreds of new deep-tech spinouts from universities. This could be delivered by the British Business Bank making investments in every nation and region of the UK, and through reforms to pension rules to help funds invest in high-potential spin-outs and start-ups, to deliver an additional £1bn of public and private investment by 2030
  • A new medical training taskforce to ensure a strategic, collaborative approach to NHS workforce planning to train more doctors and other healthcare professionals, and help cut waiting lists
  • A Green Boost for tried and tested R&D programmes, supporting universities working on breakthroughs which can cut energy bills and encourage businesses and universities to work together on initiatives that support the drive towards Net Zero
  • The establishment of a UK Research Security Fund to enhance university efforts to protect their world-class research and counter foreign interference
  • An ambitious new 2030 International Education Strategy which includes a supportive visa system alongside the current Graduate visa, to help universities continue attracting the best global talent to the UK. Every additional 1% market share for international students could boost the UK economy by more than £5bn[i] a year.

Alongside these recommendations, the paper also highlights the urgent need for universities and Government to work together on a sustainable funding model for higher education to futureproof skills development and provide a fair deal for students.

Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group said:

“Research being carried out at Russell Group universities is delivering breakthroughs that are creating skilled jobs, giving the UK a competitive advantage in new fields like AI and giving the NHS new treatments and technologies to help keep us healthy.

“Supporting quality R&D and innovation and being ambitious for our research sector will be crucial to building a bright future for the UK. Get this right, and the next Government would be taking a huge step towards tackling problems like growing NHS waiting lists.

“A long-term commitment to be a global leader in R&D investment would harness the potential of our world-leading research-intensive universities and maximise the positive impact they have in every corner of the UK. To make this a reality we need sustained public funding that will leverage significant wider private investment, to take us to 3% of GDP and beyond.”

Professor Chris Day CBE, Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University and Chair of the Russell Group said:

“Our universities, the research we do and the students we educate, will be key to enabling a future Government to deliver a healthier, more sustainable, and more resilient United Kingdom, underpinned by a thriving innovation-driven economy. This manifesto clearly demonstrates the potential that exists in universities to deliver for the UK, from providing a pipeline of skilled healthcare workers for the NHS to accelerating progress towards Net Zero.

“Previous governments have recognised the value of UK R&D and the need to invest in research excellence, and we have seen at first hand the benefits of this investment, not least during the pandemic, when university research was not only at the heart of the development of the Covid vaccine, saving many thousands of lives, but also played a critical part in supporting the nation’s economic recovery post-pandemic.

“We look forward to working closely with the next Government and utilising our strength in R&D to provide the solutions that will build a bright and prosperous future for the UK.”  

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