"Effective knowledge exchange to put universities at the heart of our country's future" – Universities Minister Chris Skidmore's speech to Engagement Forum

"Effective knowledge exchange to put universities at the heart of our country's future" – Universities Minister Chris Skidmore's speech to Engagement Forum

26 September 2019

Universities Minister Chris Skidmore has announced a number of measures that mark a new direction for knowledge exchange during a video address at Research England’s Engagement Forum today, Thursday 26 September.

These include Confirmation that Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) will rise to £250 million by 2020/21 and a roll-out of the first iteration of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), with the first results anticipated in 2020; a comprehensive Research England-review of the current HEIF funding method; and a joint call between Research England and the Office for Students for projects that evidence the benefits to students of being involved in knowledge exchange

Read the full transcript of the minister’s speech below:

Full transcript of Universities Minister Chris Skidmore’s speech to the Research England Engagement Forum, Thursday 26 September 2019

It’s great to be with you, albeit virtually, at this engagement event being run by David Sweeney and his team at Research England. I am particularly pleased, as returning universities minister, to be able to mark my return to the role with some exciting news, which I’ll come to in a minute.

First, though, let me just say how welcome it is for me as your minister to see Research England engaging with the sector through events like this. I am firmly of the view that good policy outcomes depend on high-quality sustained and meaningful engagement, and throughout my first eight months in the role, and again now returning after my brief placement in the Department for Health, I’m already seeing again just how keen you have been to engage with me personally.

The feedback and advice you have given me, and continue to give me, is so welcome, because it helps me and the government to design the right policies, and provide the right sorts of funding, that can help you, to meet your various challenges head-on, and to seize those opportunities that come about as you in turn engage with your various partners.

That’s why I was delighted to be able to announce before the summer the first real-terms increase to QR funding in a decade, which I know you have been calling for, and which I was pleased to support as we look to scale up the role of universities in rising to the challenge ahead, not just of reaching 2.4% of GDP spending on R&D, but also the opportunities of universities playing a full role in rising to the challenge of Brexit.

I know you are as motivated as I am to work through the challenges ahead, and while I of course recognise that we are going through some uncertain times at the moment (and that may be the understatement of the year!), let me assure you that as your minister, I will do everything in my power to fight for you, our amazing universities up and down the country, to thrive, and to give you the stability in funding that will allow you to plan, and to grow, attracting talent from around the globe and nurturing the next generation of people in research, in industry and in all sectors of our economy.

That’s why I want to provide a new focus to the question of how we can plan for the long term, providing new shape and direction to our funding environment and real stability for the next five, ten, fifteen years, with increases in funding that will unlock your full potential and allow you to play the fullest role in your communities. I will continue to argue strongly for a truly long term approach to R&D funding, and for some greater stability in higher education policy more generally.

And in my 40 plus visits around the country I have seen countless examples of the amazing work you are doing through your knowledge exchange activities to breathe life into communities, to attract in private investment and industry, to spin out your research ideas into new businesses, and to invest in people, through your teaching and training that are the foundation of a skilled, healthy and productive economy, today but into the future.

From the innovation centre at the Royal College of Art and the Unit DX science incubator in Bristol, right through to the Future Space at the University of the West of England, it couldn’t be clearer to me that through your knowledge exchange work, you are supercharging our whole economy and society, not just at a local level, but also regionally, nationally and globally.

I want to put on record my thanks and appreciation for this. But I also want to ask if there is more we can be doing to make sure you are making the most of this opportunity, to put rocket boosters under your knowledge exchange efforts, and really cement the impact agenda for the long term. 

That’s why I was pleased to announce 20 new university enterprise zones last week, which will help to foster a business-friendly environment within our sector. I saw last week the amazing work at Queen Mary University London on Tuesday, and Bristol on Friday, that showed me the progress being made.

And to build on this, I am especially delighted to confirm that we are now delivering on our promise made in the Industrial Strategy to increase Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) to £250m from next year, representing the latest in a long line of real-terms increases, where we have delivered a greater than 50% increase since 2016. This additional funding will provide higher education institutions up and down the country with the fuel you need to turbocharge your knowledge exchange activities. And we will be sustaining our commitment to HEIF for the long term.

As many of you know, Research England has been hard at work on a new knowledge exchange framework, or KEF, and this is something that I am passionate about. The KEF is of course still at an early stage, but I don’t want you to see this as a tickbox exercise. It is about reshaping our collective mission and providing unity of purpose to university engagement and partnerships.

I am writing to David Sweeney to welcome the work he has done so far on the KEF, and to give my backing to a staged roll-out over the coming year, helping to cement our long-term commitment to knowledge exchange, and to give it the status that it truly deserves, as a central mission of universities, alongside your research and teaching missions, and I look forward to seeing the first results in 2020.

And as the minister also responsible for intellectual property, I am keen to ensure that our most entrepreneurial researchers, those with exciting new business ideas, are fully supported to make their journey from the lab to the market, from start-up and spinout to scale-up and long-term success. In my discussions with academics and entrepreneurs, I know that some face barriers to scaling up their businesses, whether it is through access to finance, access to markets, or access to talent. I am clear that as we implement the KEF, we must do everything we can to effectively support university researchers in turning their great ideas into great new businesses that can scale.

I have asked David Sweeney and his team to work with the Higher Education Funding Councils in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to explore how best to ensure that our university IP environment can continue to evolve. I of course recognise fully that, as Mike Rees has concluded, a one-size-fits-all approach is not always possible or desirable, and that one of the strengths of our university sector is its diversity. But I see no reason why good practice should not be identified and adopted where there has benefits right across the sector, and look forward to receiving David’s advice on this.

I am therefore pleased that Research England, in consultation with the Office for Students, will now be launching a full review of HEIF, undertaking a radical reform work programme over the next three years, including a fundamental review of the HEIF methodology. This reform plan will aim to put KEF at the heart of our approach, and bedding in the important work being done by Trevor McMillan on the KE concordat, ensuring that it effectively supports our shared priorities around research commercialisation and impact.

But important as it is that we work tirelessly to commercialise our research findings and deliver growth, I also know from my experiences as a lecturer, working in think tanks and now as a politician, that the exchange of knowledge is about more than just research, important though that is. It is about the people, those vital interactions, where knowledge can spread, and where our preconceived academic notions of teaching and research blur together.

I am therefore delighted to announce that the Office for Students and Research England will together be making available £10m for projects that cross over that so-called teaching-research divide, delivering important benefits for students who often play such an important role in knowledge exchange. As your universities minister working across two departments, I want to help you to think holistically about your activities and work with your partners to deliver outcomes for your students, and for the wider economy and society, and I’m therefore delighted that Nicola Dandridge and her team are working together with Research England on this new fund.

Let me finish by saying this. British universities are rightly admired around the world for the incredible strength of your research and teaching. But it’s not enough on its own. We need truly effective knowledge exchange to put universities at the heart of our country’s future. With a long-term commitment to knowledge exchange, we can now really start to make the most of our incredible ability to produce new ideas and knowledge, and unlock the potential of universities to shape our economy and society for many years to come.

Thank you.