The Scottish Funding Council’s Coherence & Stability Review of Tertiary Education – What It Might Mean for Research in Scotland Going Forward

In this post, Sophie Lowry, Strategic Research Executive, examines what impact the Scottish Funding Council’s final phase report could have on research at Scottish universities in the short to medium term.

Background Information on the Review – What is it all about?

In May 2020, Scottish Ministers asked the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to review how best it could fulfil its mission of securing coherent provision across the tertiary education system, and the undertaking of research, in an ever-changing environment. This request was partly brought about by the way in which the pandemic exacerbated already existing challenges within the sector – namely financial challenges but also the way in which changing skills needs and a changing economy are coming into focus.

The review process, spanning just over a year, was undertaken across three deadline reporting phases with slightly different outputs from each phase.  Throughout the process, there was significant stakeholder engagement with over 100 organisations and individuals offering their opinions via a number of consultation exercises.

In terms of research activities, the SFC, when announcing the review, recognised the significant pressure placed on Scotland’s research base due to the ongoing pandemic. And it was in this context that the SFC wrote “we will therefore be considering our support for research…to ensure that, as REF2021 outcomes approach and the UK R&D strategy develops, we can use our support most effectively to enable the carrying out of excellent research in Scotland to be sustainable, impactful and internationally significant”.[1]

What are the key messages from the final report recommendations?

Given the complexity of the sector itself and of the current environment, it is not surprising that the recommendations from the final phase of the review span a fair few number of pages.

Given the holistic nature of the report, there is significant emphasis on collaboration across the entire system, from schools to colleges to universities to employers to industry partners.  An ambitious focus on embedding climate action and the transition to net zero is highlighted, noting the expertise the sector can bring to this particular agenda. We see a good number of recommendations relating to protecting and promoting students’ interests and to the wider skills and employability agenda. There is discussion about the best way to fund the system as a whole and we could guess that any changes in the way the entire sector is funded could in turn have a potential knock-on impact to research funding (particularly if the overall tertiary education budget does not increase).

Looking more specifically at research and knowledge-exchange related recommendations, the following proposals are made:

  • There is a need for continued long-term investment to sustain the research and science base in Scotland;
  • Innovation Centres and Interface should transition into more long term infrastructure investments to support innovation in Scotland;
  • Scotland’s Research Pools should be recommissioned with a focus on challenge-oriented collaborations;
  • Reporting on the impact of basic research investment (e.g. the Research Excellent Grant) should be introduced, with a proposal to share good practice across the sector and create case studies to demonstrate the need for sustained investment.

Echoing current trends in the UK research and development landscape, the review endorses a ‘missions-based approach’ to ‘harness the power of research, knowledge exchange and innovation in tackling big societal challenges’ with the climate emergency, a green recovery and a well-being society mentioned specifically.

Research Talent and Culture has its own sub-section within the larger research and knowledge exchange chapter of the report. The recommendation here is that “SFC will commission the sector to develop a blueprint for establishing a positive research culture in Scotland” and there is commitment of this work being supported by a co-ordinator post.[2]

So what’s next?

Despite a huge number of recommendations the Review doesn’t include any hard deadlines for when these will be implemented. There is an ambitious call to action to the sector and its stakeholders to work in partnership to build an inclusive and green economy for Scotland. And the review’s conclusion proposes the establishment of a National Leadership Programme for universities and colleges, taking the opportunity to maximise the ‘adaptive collective leadership’ demonstrated across the sector as result of the pandemic.

Couple these Scotland-specific recommendations with the UK-wide policy changes expected in the research and development landscape over the next few years, along with our uncharted future relationship to Horizon Europe, and we are likely to be in for quite the ride!

Further Information

Our Edinburgh Research Office Insight and Intelligence Sharepoint site [UoE login required] includes more details on Horizon Europe funding opportunities as well as a number of briefings and updates on the UK research policy landscape.

[1] Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability Frequently Asked Questions (sfc.ac.uk), p 4.

[2] Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability – phase 3 (sfc.ac.uk), p84.

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Sophie Lowry

 

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