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Welsh universities risk falling behind without enough support to compete for funding

Welsh universities risk falling behind counterparts in England and Scotland, unless they can compete on a level playing field for UK research funding, warns the National Assembly’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee.

The Committee’s report on Research and Innovation in Wales concludes that the Welsh Government must fully fund the recommendations of its own study, conducted by Professor Graeme Reid in June 2018.

The Reid Report states that universities require £85m a year in order to effectively compete for funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

The Welsh Government accepted the recommendations of the Reid Report, but so far it has only provided an extra £6.6 million in funding. As a result, universities are missing out on the share of a £4.5 billion pot available from the UKRI fund.

 As Professor Reid explains in his report on Welsh Government Funded Research and Innovation in Wales, the sector has relied disproportionally on EU structural funds rather than competitive external research funding. With EU exit fast approaching, these EU funds require replacement if the sector is not to shrink.

Committee Chair, Russell George AM, praised the high standard of work by Wales’ universities in the field of research and innovation, but emphasised that there is potential for more if funding can be secured from other sources:

“It is clear that the quality of the research being produced in Welsh universities is second to none; there just isn’t enough of it. Building on these successes will need more investment.

“Professor Reid’s findings on how best to secure investment in research and innovation have almost unanimous support. Despite this, the Welsh Government has not found the money to put the ideas in to action.

“This delay risks Wales missing out and being unable to win its fair share.”

The Committee also recognised that much innovation happens far beyond universities and colleges and it thanked business leaders and start-up owners for their contribution to the inquiry.

During the evidence sessions, it became clear that more needs to be done to facilitate the distribution of funding and resources beyond the education sector. The Committee heard evidence of successful collaborations between universities and small businesses, and examples of barriers which can prevent start-ups and smaller established business accessing resources in co-operation with universities.

Gemma Hallett is the founder of MiFuture, an online digital careers profile that brings opportunities to young people ready to make career choices. When discussing access to innovation funding, she said:

“What’s available and what a university can offer needs to be made a lot more clear. And if there’s scope for collaboration that needs to be celebrated and it needs to be widely accessible.”

The Committee’s report concluded that there should be more focus on collaboration, and the loss of specific funding for this had limited the ability of universities in Wales to engage with business. The Committee fully supports the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales’s (HEFCW) aim to reinstate funding for this purpose, and the Welsh Government should provide the funding necessary to achieve this in full, as a matter of urgency.

Looking ahead to Welsh government plans to introduce a new law reforming post-compulsory education in Wales, Russell George AM said the Government needed a clear vision to inform its reforms. He said: 

“Despite the Welsh Government’s claims that it has a vision for research and innovation, it is clear that those in the post-compulsory education sector are not aware of it. There is a need for a vision that encompasses everyone, and recognition that investment will be needed to create more innovation from cutting edge research conducted in Wales.”

The Committee made a total of 10 recommendations, including:

  • To increase its influence over investment decisions made in London, Welsh research and innovation needs to be better woven into the fabric of UK level discussions and be more visible.
  • Considering the fundamental importance of research and innovation to Welsh prosperity, the Welsh Government should provide the funding to allow HEFCW to achieve its aim of implementing the remaining recommendations of the Reid Review as a matter of urgency. Waiting for additional funding to become available as a result of the reforms of student funding risks seeing Welsh universities fall behind their rivals.
  • The Welsh Government should work with stakeholders – including Further Education – to agree and communicate a vision for all research and innovation activity in Wales. This all-Wales vision should build on the vision developed by HEFCW, recognising and encompassing business activity which occurs beyond universities.

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