The HE Debate: Where next for...research?

17 Feb 2015

Professor Nora Ann Colton, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic), UEL

It has become a cliché to say that higher education is changing. When we discuss the changes in higher education, we often focus on student numbers, fees and teaching/ learning issues. Ironically however, changes within the academy in the area of academic research have probably been even more acute over the past several years than in any other area that defines what a University is and what it claims as its mission.

There are a number of emerging trends and driving forces that are shaping the environment within which institutions undertake research. Many of these forces are particularly challenging for modern universities. For many of us, we will have to continue to rethink our research strategy in terms of how we will change to ensure the sustainability of our research over the coming decade.

Firstly, I would like to focus on the macro-picture of research in a global context before addressing the future of research more locally in terms of the specific contexts of the UK and the University of East London (UEL). In terms of the broader context that university research takes place in, we see that research and the dissemination of scientific papers by universities has grown significantly during the past decade. Much of this growth is not within the historically designated OECD countries, but in places such as China and India. A report by the Royal Society in 2011, Knowledge, Networks and Nations, forecasts China to be the world leader in research by 2020. Although there are debates about the quality of research coming from these emerging players, the fact that these nations are investing in academic research heavily while many OECD governments are pulling back, will arguably be defining in the years ahead. According to OECD data, China has continued to see an increase in spending on research and development as a percentage of GDP while overall UK investment in research has levelled off. Consequently, what we are seeing is a resulting concentration of investment in the UK in terms of those institutions and subject areas which want to stay internationally competitive.

These outcomes are emphasized with another trend - the increased growth in higher education generally with the emergence of the global knowledge economy. According to Stephan Vincent-Lancrin in 2006 the number of higher education researchers worldwide had increased by 7 percent a year and increased over 127 percent between 1981 and 1999. Along with the increased numbers of higher education researchers there is an attendant growth in research output. Indeed, recent years have witnessed an exponential growth in journal articles that has now accelerated even further with the increase in on-line books and journals.

This drive of the worldwide knowledge economy is not just seen with increased research and development, but, more importantly, through the increase in demand for student places. This situation adds to the tension that we see between the need to concentrate investment in research to stay competitive worldwide and the need to have institutions that are focused on teaching the next generation of students for growth in the economy. This leads to a view that some universities should be focused on teaching while others should be designated as ‘research universities’.

There has also been and will continue to be the shift in the distribution of public funding for research between government block grants to research projects funded through research councils in particular areas such as science and innovation. This shift is due to a belief that there needs to be more accountability of precisely how public funds are channelled for the public good. Accountability and transparency is also seen in the call for universities to have all research outputs placed in open access depositories.

What does all this mean for the UK context? We see in an analysis of the concentration of research grants and contracts that most funding is concentrated in the top 10 percent of universities. If we use research funding as a proxy for activity, it is heavily concentrated in a few universities. Therefore, it is not surprising that Russell Group universities produce 68 percent of the country’s world class research.

We also see that there is a low staff to student ratio in these high research concentration institutions. It does not necessarily mean that class sizes are significantly smaller as they could have more individuals on research only contracts than institutions with less research funding. What this could mean in the future is that academic research might just become exclusively concentrated in a relatively small share of the system while the largest number of institutions that do not fall into the top 10 percent category are unable to fund substantial research agendas.

At UEL, we have a strong commitment to critical and applied research. Having just completed the REF exercise, we were pleased to see a doubling of our world class research as well as a high impact score for the university. UEL has a vibrant research culture particularly in our humanities and social sciences. These areas along with strong areas of research output and engagement such as allied health and psychology are only relevant for us as an institution due to the tremendous impact they have on our local community. As an “anchor university” for East London, we see our local areas as living laboratories for our researchers whether it is media and communication, health development or sociology. We also note a strong correlation between research excellence and teaching performance based on NSS results.

Yet, in spite of the important role we see research playing in the lives of our students, staff and community, we are keenly aware that the government research agenda and approach to funding research in universities leaves us vulnerable.

Although most of our current research is funded by government funded grants, we are looking more and more at private sources of funding. We have also integrated our critical and applied research through the creation of a research directorate that focuses on building synergies between research and development, enterprise and innovation and PGRs/ECRs.

Our Petchey Innovation Centre is the focal point for much of our community and business engagement where we connect in some extraordinary ways with our local borough and business communities. We believe that our commitment and engagement with our local community is what has helped us to achieve such a solid impact score in the REF 2014. We are also known as a leading university in civic engagement and we are committed to continuing to foster and develop our local and regional impact agenda. We are also continuing to develop breakthrough research in areas of data storage and analysis with an interdisciplinary focus on cyber security, sustainable and resilient SMART cities, and health development and informatics.

In spite of our ambitious research agenda, we can no longer be complacent in believing that we will be proportionately rewarded for our research outputs and impact. Hence, we are looking to increase our private sources of financing. We, like many modern universities, recognize research as an imperative to attract not only excellent research staff, but teaching staff that can truly make a difference to the broader UK economy and growth in the years ahead.

We, like many HEIs, recognize that decreases in government funding will continue to be felt, yet we must continue to fund our research for the betterment of our communities. Consequently, we will continue to develop our thriving entrepreneurial activities, knowledge exchange, CPD and consultancy work. We will also look to grow our patents and licensing efforts as part of the “commercialisation” of higher education. We recognize that it may be these private resources earned through our various activities that will fund our future research.

Higher Education is changing through the key driver of research excellence which remains mainly publicly funded. If we are to remain sustainable we must develop a research funding agenda that makes extensive use of private as well as shrinking public funds.