Is collaboration shifting the UK’s centre of excellence away from Oxbridge?
For the first time in decades, Imperial College London has fallen from the top spot in engineering research income and investment. And the university that toppled it might come as a surprise to some.
Sheffield University attracted £124 million (US$157 million) through grants, capital projects and collaboration with public and private sector partners in 2017-18, in comparison to Imperial’s £106 million (US$134 million).
The figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and reported by Financial Times, show a jump up the rankings for institutions based in the North of England, with Manchester University rising to fourth place.
Manchester’s £74 million (US$94 million) places it in fourth place, just behind the University of Cambridge.
For so long now, interest and investment in higher education has been disproportionately focused on the south – in particular, the so-called “golden triangle” of Oxford, Cambridge and London.
In 2017, the Southeast, London and East of England received £5.2 billion (US$6.6 billion) in government, research councils, and higher education research funding. Whereas, the North received just £1.8 billion (US$2.3 billion), according to the Office of National Statistics.
The Southern regions have long been considered the centres of excellence for higher education, but with the tides turning on private investment, academics are making the case that – in some disciplines – northern is better. And they’re pushing that government funding should reflect that.
“Government funding is supposed to go for excellence,” said Richard Leese, leader of Manchester city council. “The government does not appear to know where excellence is as I don’t think the private sector is wasting its money.”
And that’s the thing, the private sector is more than aware of the North’s offerings, hence Sheffield University’s position at the top spot for engineering research investment.
With excellence comes reward, and even without the government’s help, universities like Sheffield and Manchester are catching the eye of the corporate world. While there are wide disparities in government funding, business investment for the North East and North West of England was almost level with London, attracting £2.5 billion and £2.8 billion respectively.
Collaboration is key
Industry collaboration has been at the very core of their success, with facilities like the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) at Sheffield proving the innovation engines of the region.
Over 100 industrial partners work alongside academics at the AMRC, working to create new products and improve manufacturing efficiency and costs. The centre makes its resources open to manufacturers of all sizes to come and collaborate.
According to their website, the AMRC “now employs over 500 highly qualified researchers and engineers from around the globe, on the Advanced Manufacturing Park and Sheffield Business Park in South Yorkshire, as well as in Broughton and Preston.”
The relationship for Boeing has proven to be an invaluable one after the university helped cut the time taken to manufacture the wing flaps from two hours and 15 minutes to just 3.5 minutes.
The US-led aerospace company was so impressed it opened its first European manufacturing facility in Sheffield last October.
‘Unlock the potential’
Centres like the AMRC are testament to the impact investment can have, not just on a university but on the whole region.
Manchester and Sheffield are far from the only northern universities with untold potential. But, in the opinion of the former universities minister, it is investment that is so badly needed to “unlock” it.
“The historic underinvestment in Northern Powerhouse universities, relative to the ‘Golden Triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge, is a matter of concern to the north,” Sam Gyimah wrote in a recent blog post.
“Rebalancing this spend so the north receives a greater share of funding can unlock its potential.”
While the government has big plans to invest in research and development – making a public commitment to increase funding to 2.4 percent of GDP by 2027 – it’s unclear how much of this will be spent on the north.
But with industry collaborations proving so effective, northern universities look set to achieve excellence with or without the government’s help.