The Nurse Review


Universities have a special place in the research landscape

Vivienne Stern

Vivienne Stern MBE has been Chief Executive of Universities UK since September 2022. She was previously the Director of Universities UK International (UUKi) which represents UK universities around the world and works to enable them to flourish internationally. She has over 20 years’ experience of working in Higher Education policy and politics at national and international level. Prior to her role in UUKi, Vivienne was Head of Political Affairs at Universities UK, and led the sector’s response to several major pieces of legislation relating to universities.


  • The UK needs to take a longer term approach to research, development and innovation
  • Universities are international communities located in the UK
  • International students contribute significantly to universities’ research spend
  • UK research must be part of a wider regional effort
  • Universities give UK research visibility on the world stage

There is a consensus emerging today about the need for a longer-term approach to the UK’s research and innovation strategy. It is now 15 years since the Sainsbury 10-year science frameworks were introduced. There have been a number of previous attempts to create stability and predictability through long-term approaches to science strategy.

Of course, it is one thing to say we need a long term, stable approach, it is another to define what that will be and how it differs from the range of options now current. The first, and perhaps most obvious, point it that people seek stable and predictable funding. When developing a proposal, it is important to know that there will be some relevant funding stream available to you and the team you are putting together, so that there is a route to achieve your goal. There needs to be some predictability in the system.

There is ongoing discussion about the merits of Horizon Europe and the UK’s place within it. One of the views heard consistently about Horizon is that it has been such a powerful platform due to its seven year investment cycle. A programme is published, so everyone knows what will happen and when. That allows proposers to start building their teams, building networks with suppliers. That stability and predictability have been really valuable.

Contrast that with a period we have recently experienced with research funding in the UK. There has been a series of one-year spending reviews. While it can be argued this was no-one’s fault given the prevailing economic conditions, one-year reviews tend to mean that large sums of money are spent in a suboptimal way, with people scrambling to put an application in for a concept that is not fully thought through, just because the money has to be spent before year end.

So if there is a consensus emerging about the desirability of a long-term approach, what does that mean in practical terms? How would it differ from what has been tried before?


Everybody acknowledges that the UK is fortunate in having really outstanding universities. Yet these are not British-only universities: in fact they are locations that host international communities. It is vitally important for the UK that they are open to talent and that they remain the kinds of places people want to come to in order to build a research career.

The universities are places where people pass through and go back to other countries. Note, though, that something interesting happens: these institutions are places where people come and start their journey on an academic career. This is where they start building collaborative networks. So, openness to talent seems to me incredibly important.

There has been a stagnation in postgraduate international recruitment and the UK is falling behind its competitors. It needs to be said again and again that these universities are outstanding because they are international and they host talent from all over the world.


It would be wrong to think that a research system like that of the UK could compete on the same scale of research production as North America and China. The speed of development of the Chinese research system, both in terms of volume and quality, is astonishing. The level of investment there will dwarf anything that any UK Government could match. Only by playing a part in a regional system can we achieve the scale necessary to compete.

Researchers at Imperial College London, the UK’s top-rated research university. 


The Nurse review makes the point that large elements of the resources dedicated to research are not accounted for in official statistics. There are large amounts that universities spend on research themselves – rather than being awarded for example. That extra money comes from a range of activities but primarily from the recruitment of international students – it represents a colossal contribution to the research system. It is a substantial cross-subsidy, supporting the funding of domestic students and we are making this case strongly to Government.

While acknowledging that universities are one part of the overall research landscape, they are certainly the most visible. That visibility results in the extra research resources that international students bring, because people come from abroad to study in our universities. There is a reputational benefit from being associated with a UK university and then going somewhere else.

That is one of the reasons why our universities have a special and important place in our research system. One of the reasons why the UK does particularly well in international rankings (for all of their flaws) is precisely because we do conduct a large proportion of our research in them and that is reflected in the rankings.

Spreading that investment runs the risk of diluting the benefit. While rankings may create unhelpful and unhealthy incentives in the system, that does not stop any Minister quoting how many universities we have in

the international Top 10 or Top 100. In identifying a long-term strategy, one consideration must be whether, in 20 or 30 years’ time, the UK will still have that advantage. Does it matter whether we are in the upper echelons of the rankings? Or will that remain important?

Having spent a lot of time talking to ministries around the world that invest in institutions in the upper reaches of the rankings, I believe we would be foolish to ignore the power that this status conveys. So I think whatever strategy we craft should not ignore the importance of maintaining UK visibility in this area.


The review refers to the gateway role that universities can play in signposting expertise right across the system. Now, in the context of innovation, we have an increasing focus on quite small geographical areas. However, in a country like the UK, we should be pushing towards larger scale. So, if you come to a UK university, it should be able to facilitate connections with other institutions, another universities, or some other parts of the research system.

Then, of course, there is the question of Horizon Europe. The review says that Horizon provides a platform for us to collaborate with 27 other nations. Actually, it is much broader than that, because all the other ‘third countries’ in the programme can collaborate with us too. That provides a much larger framework within which to pursue research that will benefit the UK.