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University research is levelling up outside of the 'golden triangle', Research England chair says


More universities outside the cities of London, Oxford and Cambridge are producing quality and innovative research, according to Research England’s executive chair David Sweeney.

Speaking in the week that the Research Excellence Framework (REF) results were published, Mr Sweeney discussed the future of UK university research with senior staff and academics in an event held at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU).

David Swenney

He said: “The REF results have shown that things are a little more level when it comes to research quality than what many would have predicted.

“What has happened this time around is that we have captured far more excellent research than we did in the previous survey and predominantly that excellent research isn’t soley in the greater south-east area any more.”

The REF is a national assessment of the quality of UK higher education research across 34 disciplinary units, known as Units of Assessment, and is conducted on a seven-year cycle to ensure the UK maintains its position as a world leader in responsive research. 

The Government earlier this year published its Levelling Up whitepaper, which has set out plans to invest at least 55 per cent of its total domestic research and development funding outside the Greater South East by 2024‑25.

And when asked whether he was confident the Government could achieve those ambitions, Mr Sweeney said that the REF results would show funding increases outside the ‘golden triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge.

He said: “We will see levelling up in the universities away from the capital and a shift in funding to where the quality research is taking place. That shift will happen naturally, regardless of government initiatives, because the quality outside the south-east region has now been spotted. 

“However, levelling up is not wholly a government problem. It’s part of an answer but we do also need to see private funders and different kinds of businesses investing outside of the south-east, which can prove to be quite difficult.”

Having been introduced by DMU’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Katie Normington, Mr Sweeney started his talk in the Vijay Patel Building by praising the efforts of universities over the past two years, stating that staff have done a “phenomenal job” supporting student wellbeing and the wider community throughout the pandemic.

He then urged institutions to push through the challenges of Brexit and potential constraints on knowledge-sharing collaborations to focus on pursuing a specific university vision for the next seven-year REF cycle.

Opportunities for funding and future research, Mr Sweeney said, also relied on universities making the most of their commercial partners and driving innovative projects collaboratively with businesses.

He said: “We need to look economically to those partners we have, where we can support commercialisation and ideas, whether that’s by problem-solving or applying new knowledge to do new things.

“There’s very little innovation that stems solely from research undertaken by academics. They have to work with their commercial partners. As a university in Leicester, you have a vision that no one else can have because you have partnerships no one else has, so get the most out of them.”

Graduating from the University of Aberdeen, David Sweeney was appointed the executive chair of Research England – a new council within UK Research and Innovation – in 2017.  

More information about the Levelling Up White Paper can be found here.

Posted on Monday 16th May 2022

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