Reimagining Higher Education Research Financing -A Living Lab Approach

The horizon has changed, higher education research is experiencing intense new demands and priorities to act upon and contribute to global transformation processes such as the green and digital transition. While operating in an increasingly unstable geopolitical environment, they must also strategically experiment with new forms of international collaboration, such as European University Alliances. These trends are affecting all dimensions of university life, but in particular their funding context, suggesting a need for innovative approaches and begging the following questions: Is innovation in HEI research funding possible? How can HEI funding adapt to the rapidly evolving globalising context HEI’s find themselves in? What implications do changes in the funding landscape have on governance and leadership? What is the capacity of universities themselves to think ahead and develop financial strategies? Which investment priorities are needed to future-proof activities? 

University College Cork (UCC), a partner in the EU Horizon Europe CATALISI[1] initiative, aims to reinject some re-imagination into this discussion and outline possible future paths for university research finances. A Living Lab at University College Cork is focusing on a cross-cutting target intervention area under the working title ‘Financial Sustainability for Research & Innovation’. In line with the Living Lab methodology embraced by CATALISI, a transformation approach has been adopted, prioritising participatory and iterative co-creation actions with stakeholders including university staff and students and external partners.


[1] The primary goal of the CATALISI project is to support seven Higher Education Institutions (so-called ‘Implementers’) in successfully implementing a strategy and individual pathway for Institutional transformation. CATALISI Higher Education Institutions (Implementers) are located in seven European countries, more specifically: Greece (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki – AUTH), Lithuania (Kaunas University of Technology – KTU), Ireland (University College Cork – UCC), Poland (University of Gdańsk – UG), Spain (Jaume I University – UJI), Italy (Luiss Guido Carli University – LUISS), and Netherlands (Amsterdam University Medical Center – AUMC).

 

The CATALISI model focuses on three main domains for institutional transformation (Research careers and talent support, Open science and public engagement, and Sustainable research and education) composed by different intervention areas and intersected by seven targeted and innovative acceleration services (Living Labs, Design Lab for transformational pathway, and Counselling, Reinforce Human Capital; Predictive study on skills anticipation; Marketplace; Community of practice (CoP)). These are designed to facilitate and catalyse institutional transformations in the field of Research and Innovation which will strengthen HEI’s collaborations and alliances as lighthouses of European values.

While framing its Living Lab and the intervention area it is targeting, UCC recognised that financial sustainability is an integral and requisite part of realising sustainability in broader terms and within the context of a research and innovation ecosystem that interacts at local, regional, national, and international levels. Institutionally UCC is committed to continually strengthening its research and academic excellence. This intervention area is therefore strongly aligned to the university institutional strategy, leadership commitment and ambition around UCC’s Research and Innovation agenda. This is articulated under Goal 1 of the UCC Strategic Plan 2023-2028 which sets out to ‘deliver impactful research and innovation that addresses global grand challenges in signature areas of excellence’.

The role of the UCC Living Lab is to collaboratively engage with stakeholders to explore the current state of affairs and to co-design, develop and pilot new models and practices, thus accelerating transformation, a key goal of CATALISI, towards a more financially sustainable research and innovation ecosystem. The Living Lab approach to collaboratively examine and plan for financial sustainability is particularly relevant to the institution considering the complexity and scale of the issues to be addressed. Participants in the Living Lab have highlighted the following issues:

Firstly, in Ireland, there is a relatively low level of Gross Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD), one of the lowest investment in R&I of OECD countries. In addition, a high proportion of total research income to UCC comes from a small number of large-scale research centres, with an over reliance on one single state funding agency, presenting a need for more balance to ameliorate risk.

Research income for the most part, solely covers direct research project costs. In many cases, the small institutional overhead provided (indirect costs) by a research grant does not sufficiently support the full cost to the institution of supporting a funded research project. For example, additional needs include support from staff in the research office, finance office, legal office, human resources department, Library, and many other support services over the lifetime of the grant.

As there is no mechanism currently for retaining overhead institutionally to invest in strategic initiatives or capacity building initiatives, an enhanced strategic model of income allocation is required for longer term financial sustainability, as without the ability to invest strategically, the institution is compromised.

For example, increasingly UCC, as a local regional institution, is experiencing issues related to brain drain, talent retention and attraction. It needs to unlock mechanisms to better retain, attract and sustain a pipeline of research talent. This requires identifying and unlocking financial mechanisms that enable institutional development in this area.

In addition, staff have identified Pre and Post Award grant support as an issue for researchers outside of research centres. Staff have identified a range of support needs for College and School based researchers, in particular – grants involving complex community partnerships (co-hiring, co-financing, co-researching etc.) which require deeper research supports than are currently available. UCC’s research and innovation context is also one of rapid pace of change with respect to Open Science. Currently, there is an ad-hoc fragmented approach to Open Science because of financial constraints with regard to planning for future needs.

Secondly, UCC Living Lab stakeholders are concerned about a context where research priorities are increasingly set by external funding agencies, with a narrowing of research topics and a need for greater diversity and more institutionally determined topics. With regard to institutional autonomy, UCC finds itself relatively constrained regarding its ability to fund and support an institutionally determined and driven research agenda – within a wider context of a funding policy and culture determined nationally and at European level.

In addition, Funders are also increasingly encouraging societal engagement as an aspect of research proposals, but without consideration of the collaborative design, planning and ongoing partnership over many years needed with external partners to enable meaningful and impactful research. Systems and supports are needed to realise truly transformative rather than transactional relationships between higher education and society. In this regard, there is currently a disconnect between university research systems, societal actors, funding instruments, policymakers and the public, presenting a need and opportunity for advocacy to funding bodies and policymakers to address these issues.

With the launch of CATALISI’s acceleration service, a Living Lab, UCC finds itself more equippedto identify the issues and progress innovation towards the ‘Financial Sustainability of Research & Innovation’. Its capacity to think strategically and to also think ahead as an organization has been enhanced through identifying and partnering with its stakeholders, internally and externally. We are now positioned to gather valuable insights into the local context, barriers, and the framework conditions that impact our potential for institutional transformation. The involvement of quadruple helix stakeholders – Academia, Business, Public Administration, and Civil Society – has added a mosaic of perspectives, needs, and expectations to our thinking. Our determination now is to progress action plans, informed by our stakeholders, and indeed with our stakeholders, ultimately accelerate and drive an effective transformation.

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