The Witty Review – 5 Implications for Universities

20 Oct 2013

Encouraging a British Invention Revolution: Sir Andrew Wittys Review of Universities and Growth, was released last week to a broadly warm welcome from the sector.  Anyone familiar with Mariana Mazzucato’s recent book The Entrepreneurial State, which makes a compelling case for state investment in new technology, will see the logic in Witty’s proposals for ‘Arrow projects to drive forward globally competitive technological ideas into real businesses’, and he is forthright in asserting universities’ central role in economic engagement.  Speaking at the report’s launch, Vince Cable was a little circumspect, cautioning that government would need to time to reflect on Witty’s recommendations, some of which he noted are ‘rather expensive’.  Nevertheless, it seems likely that the UK government will adopt at least some of Witty’s proposals, so it’s worth reflecting on what implications they may have.  The following 5 points stood out for me:

1.      Increased funding for Third Mission activity

Witty believes universities should make facilitating economic growth a ‘key strategic goal’, and recommends that they are incentivised to adopt ‘an enhanced Third Mission alongside Research and Education’.   In addition to the Arrow projects, which he suggests should receive £1bn of funding over the next parliament, he proposes that:

  • the Higher Education Innovation Fund be increased substantially to £250m per annum;
  • €1 billion of European Structural and Investment Funds for innovation are largely channelled to universities and research centres;
  • the weighting of the ‘impact’ measure within the Research Excellence Framework be increased to 25% of the total, post-2014.

Some will see this a Faustian bargain, with researchers and institutions forced to cede their autonomy to pursue research in areas of their choosing in return for access to funding.  Certainly it seems unlikely that a cash-strapped government will make new money available at the level Witty is proposing, and so an increasing concentration of existing funds in those areas of research deemed ‘economically advantageous’ seems the probable result.  Institutions who are able to align their internal resources and academic expertise with these areas are likely to reap the greatest rewards.

2.   Increased Reporting on Research and Knowledge Exchange

Witty’s second recommendation is that ‘Prospective investors in research should have online access to as much information as possible as to where there is research strength. This should include identifying research by sector and technology, and where possible by the businesses and charities funding it.’  He also proposes that universities should report their Third Mission activity, and impediments to it, to the Government on an annual basis.

While some of this information could perhaps be sourced from funders and existing datasets held by HESA, it seems inevitable that much of the burden of producing this information will fall on institutions.  This provides a strong incentive for institutions to improve the quality of their existing data-gathering and reporting processes on research and knowledge exchange activity, but it will have an administrative cost attached.  It also raises a number of broader questions, such as the potential need for a taxonomy of research sectors and technologies, or for unique identifiers of funders of research (something the Fundref initiative is already seeking to deliver).

3.     Greater Use of Metrics to Identify Areas of Research Excellence

The pressure to deliver accessible information on research excellence and emerging technologies to relatively uninformed consumers such as SMEs is likely to entail a growing reliance on metrics.  Indeed, Part 2 of the report illustrates the direction of travel by using citations analysis to identify the geographical distribution of excellence in relation to the government’s Industrial Strategy and Eight Great Technologies.

Like it or not, many universities will therefore need to step up their research analytics capability in order to develop a better understanding of how they will be viewed and judged on these measures.  In my early career as an auditor, it was frequently drilled into us that we not only had to ‘be independent’, but also ‘be seen to be independent’, and sadly a lot more time and effort was expended on achieving the latter than the former.  I can see parallels for researchers and their institutions, who must now not only ‘do excellent research’, but ‘be seen to be doing excellent research’ by the world by large.

4.   Greater Emphasis on Engagement with SMEs

Witty’s report emphasises the role of ‘fast-growing’ SME’s in driving economic growth, and proposes that institutions should engage more effectively with these companies by establishing a single point of entry to the institution.  He also believe business schools can do more to increase the ‘coherence’ of an SMEs offer, and wants to see universities ‘committing to ambitious programmes of identifying potential fast growing SMEs and injecting technology, expertise, talent and know-how into them’.

He suggests that the formula for allocation of HEIF funding should be weighted further in favour of SME engagement.  He is also proposing an increase in the total size of the HEIF pot, presumably from the next funding round in 2015, which if past practice is any guide will probably be allocated based on actual performance in the years 2012-2014.  This means institutions would be wise to look at ways of increasing their SME engagement immediately, as this could translate into a significant increase in HEIF funding in the next funding allocation.

5.     New Stakeholder Relationships – LEPs and UKTI

Witty identifies the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) as having a key role in promoting economic growth and job creation.  Given their local focus is contrary to his first philosophy of structuring funding flows ‘by technology/industry opportunity – not by postcode’, one rather suspects he is deeply sceptical of the LEP model, and he rightly raises concerns over a lack of coherence in their plans at a national level.  However, he clearly sees the close involvement of universities as one means of improving their chances of success, whilst helping universities access the ERDF funding that will be channelled through this route.   Witty also lays down a challenge for UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) to engage more proactively with universities than they have in the past.  Universities may well find it beneficial, therefore, to develop closer links with both their Local Enterprise Partnership (one third of whom have no university representation at present) and UKTI in the coming years.

Finally, for anyone looking for a counterpoint to all this talk about universities and economic growth (as if that’s all they exist for), I’d recommend reading Stefan Collini’s review of two recent books on the subject of HE funding,  Sold Out.  Though primarily focussed on the UK’s new system of tuition fees and student loans, he has a number of interesting points to make, and one quote, from Roger Brown, is particularly apposite: ‘The main threat to academic control of research has come from a series of state initiatives since the early 1990s to promote what successive governments of all parties have deemed to be in the national economic interest.’  With the release of Witty’s report, I rather suspect that this threat has just increased.