Delivering Research England’s research funding settlement

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August 2022 marks the first year of a new quality-related research (QR) funding settlement that draws on the outcomes from REF 2021 and targets key government priorities.

The value of QR is not always well understood and a large part of our job in Research England (RE) is to promote a better understanding of the vital role that QR plays in supporting university research. QR provides stable, and flexible funding, enabling universities to identify and achieve their own strategic research ambitions and pursue new research priorities, often in partnership with business, charities, and other organisations.

It supports universities to invest in long-term activities and respond with agility to short-to medium-term challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It also provides vital support to universities to develop long term approaches to capacity building, invest in research careers, and improve research culture.

This is why this recent settlement is a real success. It recognises the importance of QR funding, maintaining the dual support balance and increasing QR by over 10%, from £1.8 billion to almost £2 billion. It also begins the first multi-year funding settlement since UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)’s inception in 2018, providing stability for the forthcoming period stability for the forthcoming period and allowing universities to plan their investment in research on a more strategic basis.

What’s new in QR?

The outcomes from the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 show that excellent research is taking place across the breadth of universities in the UK. REF 2021 saw a 46% increase in the number of staff submitted to the exercise and this has not been at the expense of research quality. Against an overall backdrop of 41% of research having been assessed as world-leading and a further 43% as internationally excellent, over three quarters of universities had at least 15% of their research judged to be world-leading.

Our funding allocations reflect the breadth of academic excellence and impact recognised by the REF, with REF 2021 data being incorporated into the new mainstream QR and research degree programme QR settlement, while continuing along the policy direction set by the government. The three star to four star ratio has been maintained and we’re reflecting research outputs, impact and environment in the same proportions as REF 2021.

There is one change – proportional allocations across disciplinary areas are maintained at 2021 to 2022 levels, recognising the contribution that all our disciplines make to national life. This includes the significant contribution to culture and quality of life from the arts and humanities.

Highlights

This new mainstream QR settlement, driven by the geographical spread of excellent REF outcomes, has produced a regional shift in research funding. More funding is flowing to our universities beyond the south east, allowing us to recognise more excellent research activity across England.

Increased funding for core research will reward high performance in the 2021 REF, benefitting those universities with above-average quality gains who are also building increased research capacity. This means that more of our newer and smaller universities are seeing reward for their investment in research excellence and receiving more funding to further grow their research capacity.

Meeting challenges

We recognise that, despite the uplift to QR funding this year, there remain challenges within the sector, particularly in the current economic climate. Mainstream QR is a fixed funding pot that is shared between many universities with excellent research.

We are pleased to be able to continue supporting those vital specialist institutions that are more exposed to fluctuations in funding, as well as providing increased support for postgraduate research provision rising to £322 million and through the charity support fund now totalling £219 million.

Notably, funding for research with business increases by 36% from £84 million to £114 million recognising the government’s priority to support universities in their partnerships with business.

We have also increased and made clear our medium-term intentions for other elements of our funding. We have extended the Policy Support Fund, the Participatory Research Fund and the Enhancing Research Culture Fund for this spending review period. This recognises the importance of targeted support for specific activities and the value of these funding streams to a wide range of institutions and partners.

What next for RE?

We will be working closely with colleagues from RE and the UK funding bodies as the Future Research Assessment Programme concludes, to consider the implications for future research assessment in the UK and how it might inform future funding allocations in England.

We are also excited to begin planning for future funding streams, including a potential second round of Expanding Excellence in England (E3) funding to support the growth of small, excellent units. We hope to be in a position to say more on this shortly.

As universities start the new academic year and make plans for their new QR settlements, we will turn our attention back to making the case for QR for the future. We will continue to work with colleagues in RE, UKRI and across the sector to better understand the sustainability challenges faced by universities and the role of QR in responding to them.

Engaging with the sector on what can be achieved with mainstream QR and our other research funding streams, and how they can be employed strategically to support research capability and capacity, will be an important part of this work.

Top image:  Credit: simoncarter, E+ via Getty Images

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