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Strengthening research and innovation in Northern Ireland

21 Mar 2018

CaSE Executive Director Dr Sarah Main on CaSE’s efforts to protect funding for PhD training in Northern Ireland.

Over the last two months, universities in Northern Ireland have been grappling with the prospect of a £12m cut to higher education budgets, to be met by withdrawing funding from PhD training over the next three years. This was first mooted in the Northern Ireland Budgetary Outlook 2018-20, as part of efforts to make wider cut backs in uncertain times. The Royal Irish Academy published a response in which it said it ‘notes with alarm the suggestion… that the continued funding of research studentships may be under threat’.

This proposal had a particular impact on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) because these subjects are given priority in the allocation of PhD studentships in Northern Ireland. Therefore, CaSE has been monitoring the situation closely and I have been in touch with the two universities in Northern Ireland throughout.

Thankfully, the Northern Ireland Budget 2018-19, announced on 8th March, indicates that plans for the proposed cut have been revised, instead implementing a ‘flat cash’ budget for higher education. This still presents challenges for the universities of Northern Ireland – and there may yet be an impact on PhD funding.

Last week I wrote to the Permanent Secretary of the Department for the Economy, to make a case for a robust PhD funding system to support a sustainable and resilient environment for research and innovation in Northern Ireland, and to inform preparations for the 2019-20 budget and beyond. You can read excerpts of the case I made below.

I have learnt a lot through my conversations with colleagues in Northern Ireland and have a greater understanding of the outstanding impact of the universities’ research in Northern Ireland and across the UK.

There is a mixed economy of funding of for PhDs in Northern Ireland: directly from the Northern Ireland budget, from Research Council Doctoral Training Partnerships and from UK-wide funding competitions. As is often the case, the funds universities receive directly from the administration are used effectively to secure partnerships, business collaborations, and to leverage further external funds, by as much as 2.5-fold.

This approach of ingeniously squeezing as much value out of funds as possible is typical of universities throughout the UK. It is a good demonstration of how a single line in a budget belies the web of financial leverage, economic gain, societal benefit, reputation and competitiveness it delivers – and that the real impact of a cut in PhD funding is much greater than the sum saved from the budget line.

Selected excerpts from the letter are below:

You will be aware of the widely acknowledged value of research and development as drivers of the economy, both in direct enhancement of productivity and in spillover effects such as the value of highly skilled people moving into roles in the wider economy. Therefore, Northern Ireland’s PhD training programme has a positive impact not only on academic endeavour but on the success of businesses across Northern Ireland and beyond.

In Northern Ireland’s universities, funds for PhD studentships from the Northern Ireland administration are used to leverage external funds by as much as 2.5 fold. The additional support universities can demonstrate for PhD studentships makes partnership bids for major programmes more competitive in UK-wide funding competitions, thereby attracting substantial investment to Northern Ireland that would otherwise go elsewhere in the UK.

A hiatus in PhD funding could be very damaging because of the long financial horizons of PhD studentships. It could create a drop in a key driver of productivity and skills for Northern Ireland as well as damaging the two principal universities’ competitiveness in both reputation and in success in winning external research funding and new collaborations with businesses for a number of years.

I would advise the greatest of caution in consideration of reducing funding for the many hundreds of PhD places in Northern Ireland every year. In terms of financial leverage, economic gain, societal benefit and reputation, the real impact of such a reduction will be much greater than the sum saved from the budget line.