After an exceptionally late allocations process this year, Research England have today confirmed their recurrent budgets for the 2021-22 academic year. So, what do the numbers mean for the English higher education sector?

The good

Compared to last year, the overall budget has risen by £77m. With the Chancellor eager to establish his prudence, any increase should be celebrated as a win.

The two largest budget lines – quality-related research (QR) funding and core Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) funding – both hold steady, resisting the temptation to siphon money elsewhere. These budgets relate to long-term investments and partnerships, both of which benefit from stability.

Research England is targeting resources towards ‘building back better’ after the pandemic, with a slew of smaller, one-off grants designed to get key parts of the sector back into gear. 

Among those one-off grants there’s an eye-catching £30m for “Enhancing Research Culture”. That’s a helpful signal that this year’s People and Culture Strategy isn’t just words but can leverage resource too.

The not-bad-but-not-good

Those steady budgets for QR and HEIF are flat cash, so inflation takes a bite. With the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rising by 3.2% in the 12 months to August 2021, those same budgets won’t go as far in university towns, cities, and campuses across England.

Beyond those two budget bruisers, there’s mixed fortunes for the smaller recurring budgets lines. But compared to last year, the net outcome is negative for both the recurring research budget (-£41m) and the knowledge exchange budget (-£13m).

The slew of one-off grants, totalling £132m, offsets these core budget losses and generate the overall budget boost of £77m. But the temporary nature of this £132m means it can’t compensate for long-term, stable core budgets. 

The ugly

It’ll bring pain to many across the sector to watch the Global Challenges Research Fund budget line collapse from £63m to £0. The result of this year’s cuts to overseas aid spending, this vanishing budget sends a strong signal to the world that won’t chime with ‘Global Britain’. 

So where do we stand?

This allocation leaves the English higher education sector pointing in the right direction, but a £77m boost doesn’t match the scale of the ‘science superpower’ rhetoric we keep hearing.

Research England will no doubt be pitching for a more ambitious outcome at next month’s Spending Review, ideally one which allows them to focus on increasing core budgets rather than using one-off grants to offset falls elsewhere in their portfolio. CaSE’s recent 5-point roadmap for R&D investment highlighted the benefits of long-term budgets and investing in the fundamentals of the R&D sector. 

Research England’s ability to secure that ambitious settlement will, in part, be down to our sector’s ability to make the case for R&D as a political priority, so we have an important few weeks ahead.

You can see more about the allocations on the UKRI website: https://www.ukri.org/news/2-5-billion-investment-to-support-governments-rd-ambitions/ 

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