Ministerial speech on science and technology

04 January 2012

Commenting on University and Science Minister’s speech on ‘our hi-tech future’, Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, said:

“We welcome the Government’s ambition of making the UK the best place in the world to do research. Our economic future depends on the country’s research-intensive universities matching the best in the world, and the Government’s growth strategy must recognise this. As David Willetts says, our universities and science facilities are ‘great national assets’.

“The Minister is right to recognise the importance of the UK remaining open to leading international scientists. There is a fierce global market for the best academic talent, and our universities’ track record of attracting international staff has made a very important contribution to the UK’s considerable intellectual and economic success. International academics need confidence from the outset that the immigration system will allow them to complete their work so long as it continues to benefit the UK’s economy and society.

“League tables have real limitations, but on most indicators the UK ranks second only to the USA in the number of world-class universities; as the Minister suggests, we must continue to support those universities that can be global leaders. Our universities offer a bigger bang for the buck than most of our competitors and punch well above their weight when you look at performance relative to expenditure. But we certainly can’t rest on our laurels. While developed countries on average invest one per cent of GDP on higher education, the UK invests just 0.6% of public funding in HE, one of the lowest levels in the OECD.  Even when fees and private research funding is included, we are outpaced by the US, Australia, Canada, Korea and Japan. Global competitors are pumping billions into higher education and snapping at our heels.

“Proposals to encourage private investment into new postgraduate science-focused institutions are interesting, but the Government must ensure that this will not divert funding away from existing leaders in these fields. Excellence in science, technology and postgraduate teaching and research requires considerable investment. At a time of austerity, it is prudent to invest where research funds have the most impact: within our world-class research-intensive universities. This concentration of research-funding within our leading universities encourages collaboration across disciplines to develop the innovations that will solve our most complex challenges.

“We welcome the Minister’s ambition to increase universities knowledge exchange income from external sources as a supplement to, rather than replacement for, Government support. Indeed, successful commercialisation of research can take many years, is unpredictable, and cannot be relied upon to provide regular income to universities. However, the Russell Group already receives millions every year for its collaborations with business and industry, and we are keen to continue working with business, government and others to increase the benefits that business and industry gain from our institutions. Thousands of leading businesses make Russell Group universities their partner of choice. With the right investment, our universities can help develop pioneering products from conception to commercialisation.”

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