2008 Higher Education, Research and Knowledge Transfer as Drivers of the Knowledge Economy in Northern Ireland

Professor Gerry McKenna


Universities are also the main providers of research in Northern Ireland. Research and development in the private sector is still low relative to Great Britain and the Irish Republic. While other public bodies (DHSSPS, DARD, DOE etc.) carry out some research, it is modest in output, though not necessarily in funding, relative to the universities. Those responsible for economic development should be seriously engaged in public debate and policy formation related to the scale, quality and broad priorities in research for a number of reasons. Firstly, the supply of high quality graduates and researchers for future industrial requirements is dependent on the research base in the universities. Secondly, recruitment of high quality academics necessary to maintain high quality education requires an internationally respected research environment for them to enter and flourish. Thirdly, research in the emerging technologies and their underpinning disciplines, will be crucial to support new and existing high technology companies in the future. It, and the supply of relevant graduates, is a primary factor in attracting inward investment. Fourthly, it is now well established worldwide that university research can, if managed and supported effectively, yield major economic benefits through the development of start-up high-technology companies creating both wealth and high level employment.

At a time when Northern Ireland’s politicians are experiencing obvious difficulty grappling with the policy priorities and consequences of devolution, the lack of a credible independent source of economic analyses is a major deficiency. There is no comparable body to the ESRI, either in terms of scale or reputation, in Northern Ireland. It is noteworthy that the Scottish Executive has funded an initiative to support a number of new chairs in economics in the Scottish universities. A comparable approach may be needed in Northern Ireland; linked to accountability and delivery. Universities are funded largely from the public purse but are, rightly, autonomous institutions. Their historic independence from local and short-term political interference has been a key factor in their endurance and quality. Nonetheless, as their importance for economic development becomes ever more acute, it is reasonable to expect that their academic and research planning priorities should reflect global trends in technological development and demand.

While undue political interference in university planning would be unwise, there is a case for greater involvement by Government in determining the subject mix on offer, its geographical location, research priorities and support for technology transfer. All of this should be predicated on an expectation, linked to funding, of excellence in teaching and research and high completion rates (currently unacceptably low in certain areas ). Such central planning overview as previously existed through the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council and loose directives from DEL appears to have been weakened of late in Northern Ireland.

There is a strong case for linking university funding more overtly to the following:

1. Subject Mix and Geographic Distribution.

There is little case for relaxing the cap on student numbers per se as few, if any, well qualified students are now forced to leave Northern Ireland. Rather, there should be a funding requirement for both universities to significantly increase their proportion of places in STEM subjects within their current agreed maximum funded student numbers. There should also be a requirement, linked to funding, for a greater proportion of STEM places to be located in the North-West. Funding should also be linked more overtly to widening access and completion rates.

 2. Research Capability.

 Both local universities performed well in the most recent ( 2001 ) national Research Assessment Exercise, with three subject areas, Biomedical Sciences, Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering, and Celtic Studies obtaining the highest possible, 5*, ratings, signifying international excellence in depth. A number of other subject areas including Physics , the Built Environment and Electrical and Electronic Engineering obtained 5 ratings. There is thus a strong base on which to build research support for the existing and emerging technologies. ( The results of the most recent Research Assessment Exercise will indicate more recent research performance. These will be published in December 2008 ).

Despite the creditable research performance of the two universities, public funding per capita for research remains low in Northern Ireland, although there have been a number of noteworthy developments in recent years including the Support Programme for University Research ( SPUR ). While future DEL funding for university research should continue to be based largely on RAE performance, there is a strong case for skewing additional funding towards science and engineering subjects based on clear strategies for enhancing research volume and performance. As with student numbers and subject mix, such funding should take due account of geographic spread.

3. Technology and Knowledge Transfer.

It is axiomatic that the expectation of high and expanding research performance in both universities should be paralleled by a corresponding growth in technology transfer to existing and new companies, including those recruited from elsewhere. It should also result in significant growth in the number of new start-up companies ‘spinning out’ of the universities. While both universities have in place technology transfer vehicles and have had varying degrees of success, there may be a need for an ‘accelerating vehicle’ to independently promote such activity. Such a vehicle, publicly funded and ‘not for profit’ could act as a benign facilitator, mentor and broker for and between the various interests such as the universities, Invest NI, the Northern Ireland Science Park , venture capitalists and other major sources of funding and investment. Its sole focus would be to increase technology transfer within Northern Ireland and its performance measured accordingly.

4. Economic Analysis and Business Support.

The paucity of internationally excellent and independent economic analysis and business academic support in Northern Ireland should be addressed. There is a case for a significant funding initiative involving both universities to tackle this deficiency.

The recommendations outlined in this paper would not, in themselves, transform Northern Ireland’s economic performance. The paper does not, for example, include at this stage, reference to the FE sector which is also a crucial part of the economic equation. It is, however, difficult to envisage a viable economic strategy which does not address the issues raised.

Position paper prepared for politicians, September 2008


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