Close-up of two female students smiling at their university graduation ceremony

Unless more equitable ways of funding UK universities are found, students could end up with fewer places to choose from.Credit: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty

“Shock delay to net-zero pledges turns UK from climate leader to laggard.”

This unflattering headline from a 2023 Nature editorial gives a flavour of the disconnect between the UK government and scientific community since the country’s last general election in December 2019. “Equality and diversity efforts do not ‘burden’ research — no matter what the UK government says”, from 2020, offers another snapshot.

The next election will take place on 4 July. The two main contenders for prime minister are incumbent Rishi Sunak of the Conservative Party and opposition leader Keir Starmer of the Labour Party. Opinion polls predict a clear majority for Labour. Universities and science matter in this election, as Nature’s news team reports. A survey commissioned by the non-profit organization Campaign for Science and Engineering in London found that investments in health-care and environmental research are clear priorities for the public. But to achieve these and other goals, the incoming government needs to get a grip on at least three urgent priorities.

Reconnect with the world

Researchers were hit hard by the United Kingdom’s formal exit from the European Union on 31 January 2020, following a referendum in 2016. It came as a huge relief when, last year, the government negotiated an agreement that allowed UK researchers to rejoin the EU’s Horizon Europe funding scheme. But, in other respects, the country has grown more isolated.

Many topics, including climate change and the regulation of artificial intelligence, are ripe for closer international collaboration. The government’s decision to delay the implementation of climate targets was rightly criticized. So was the closure of popular funding schemes that encouraged research partnerships between scientists in the United Kingdom and counterparts in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

The UK authorities also make it hard for researchers from many LMICs to get visas to work, study and even attend conferences in the country, compared with researchers from high-income nations, according to London’s Royal Society. The number of applications to UK universities by international students (who are mostly at the master’s and PhD stages) is falling, in part because such students are no longer allowed to bring dependants. The incoming government must understand that such policies damage both research and international links.

Fix university finances

There’s a paradox at the heart of UK research. Although research funding has been increasing and now stands at nearly 3% of gross domestic product, 40% of universities in England are forecast to be in deficit by the end of this year, according to the Office for Students, the universities regulator, and there are fears a few could go bust. A key reason is that student fees, introduced in 1998 under a Labour government, have become the largest source of income for public universities. These have not increased since 2017, meaning that university income has not kept up with expenses. This situation is untenable and needs fixing.

Big research-intensive universities are at lower risk, partly because they have comparatively large numbers of international students, most of whom pay higher fees, and also because their members receive the lion’s share of research funding. By contrast, many smaller universities are cutting courses and laying off staff. Such universities tend to cater for a higher proportion of students from low-income families. A solution must be found to distribute funding more equitably and avoid a situation in which research and teaching become more concentrated in fewer institutions.

No more ministerial meddling

The past five years have seen members of the government openly interfering in the workings of research and higher education. Examples include official government websites discouraging students from enrolling on what they call “rip-off” or “Mickey Mouse” degrees, which are widely understood to include many in media and journalism. The British Academy, the national academy for the humanities and social sciences, has pointed out the value of these degrees to the nation’s £108-billion (US$137 billion) creative economy.

Ministers have also sought to influence decisions made by the national funding agency, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and told universities that there is no need for them to comply with equality initiatives such as the Athena SWAN charter, an internationally recognized scheme for gender equality, devised in the United Kingdom. Such interference should not come as a surprise — warnings were sounded in 2017, following the passage of a law in which ministers gave themselves more power to interfere in this way. All political parties need to understand that ‘arms length’ expert bodies should be operationally autonomous. No credible government would interfere in the running of the Office for Budget Responsibility or the Office for National Statistics. UKRI needs to be treated in the same way.

The past five years have been particularly unpredictable for researchers in the United Kingdom, which has had four prime ministers in that time. Higher education and research need conditions of greater stability to thrive. They also need appropriate and stable funding, consistent dialogue between ministers and the research community, and a respect for the autonomy of educational and research institutions. This is not too much to ask.