Policy Update – May 2023

Ed Bridges, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Academy of Social Sciences 

Horizon Europe / Pioneer

The UK Government’s Secretary of State for Science & Technology, Michelle Donelan, travelled to Brussels in early April to discuss UK association to the EU’s €95.5 billion (£84bn) Horizon Europe scheme. The UK’s sustained absence from Horizon Europe was cited as a factor in a decline in skilled worker visa applications, with figures falling by 18% summer 2022 and the previous year (albeit against the backdrop of COVID-19).

In parallel to the Horizon negotiations, the UK Government set out its alternative plan – Pioneer – which would run until 2028 and receive £14.6bn in funding currently earmarked for Horizon. The plan is split between four “pillars”:

· The Talent pillar would receive £2bn of funding to support up to 800 studentships, 370 international fellowships and 260 fellowships, plus an unspecified number of professorships.

· The pillar covering end-to-end innovation would see £3.5bn of investment in “moonshot programmes to tackle some of the biggest global challenges of our time”.

· Work on global collaboration would centre on “focused investment to work with key strategic international partners on top research priority areas”, including the International Science Partnerships Fund.

· Finally, the infrastructure pillar would use £1.7bn to “ensure researchers and innovators have access to world-class infrastructure across the UK”.

For the social science community, emphasising the role that the social sciences can play in the second pillar, innovating to tackle the great societal challenges of our time, would be a helpful point to emphasise so it does not get lost. Likewise, underlining the importance of social science featuring in the first pillar on talent is also important.

Research England strategic delivery plan

Research England set out its plans to secure the financial sustainability of England’s HE research system and review its own research funding as part of its Strategic Delivery Plan to 2025. The document pledges to “create and sustain the conditions for a healthy, dynamic, diverse and inclusive research and knowledge-exchange system” across five streams: people and careers; places; ideas; innovation; and impacts. Overall, Research England plans to spend £8bn across the period covered.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the document is light on specifics, and there is no sense of its proposals favouring one discipline over another. The bigger challenge is the wider context (see next section) of the overall sustainability of the financial model underpinning England’s university system.

HE and research funding

Higher education is facing a ‘perilous’ financial future and the sector ‘can’t go on’ operating in the same way, the University of Oxford’s vice-chancellor has said. Her calls were supported a few weeks later by UUK, who called for ‘a national conversation’ on the future of the UK’s HE sector. Meanwhile, former Universities Minister for England, Jo Johnson, argued at a Policy Exchange event that universities holding gold or silver Teaching Excellence Framework awards should now be charging over £12k per year for home undergraduate fees in line with inflation. Alongside this, questions are being asked about how university research should be funded, picking up on elements of the Nurse review – this WonkHE blog on the subject makes for excellent reading and explores some of the implications for different disciplines.

Future updates

Finally, I would welcome feedback from you about how you use this and other policy updates from the AcSS (including the Policy Monitor) as I review the various reporting mechanisms within our policy work.