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Recovery position

Covid-19’s impact on universities is rising, and they need support

Finding hope is not easy when the year has started with the UK’s toll of coronavirus deaths passing 80,000. But, as the vaccine rollout offers the promise of better times, the research sector that has been so critical to its launch can be grateful it isn’t starting 2021 facing exclusion from European Union R&D programmes.

The last-minute trade deal agreed between the UK and EU paves the way for association to Horizon Europe, including participation in the European Research Council and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions schemes. But it is far from perfect for the sector. The loss of involvement in the Erasmus student exchange casts a shadow over ambitions to develop future research talent—especially as the homegrown replacement, the Turing scheme, looks likely to offer funding only to UK students studying abroad, not vice versa.

But it could have been much worse. As the Wellcome Trust’s Martin Smith writes this week, “Perhaps it feels strange to pop champagne corks when all that’s been achieved is something similar to what we had before. But we came close to losing it.”

The sense that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s almost gone would be a timely sentiment for the government to tune into in relation to mounting pressures on universities from the pandemic. The extent to which the stability of the sector, and therefore its research capacity, is being damaged is apparently still being wilfully ignored. 

The costs to universities of making campuses ‘Covid-safe’ has run well into the millions: the latest phase of our investigation into spending reveals institutions shelling out hundreds of thousands each on social distancing measures, and hardship funds of up to £1 million (P8). This was before the latest lockdown; universities now face added pressure to compensate students who have been told by government not to attend these campuses for accommodation costs.

Teaching online where possible makes total sense, but expecting universities to deal with increasing fallout from national lockdown policies without meaningful government support shows blatant disregard for the pressures they are under and the significant costs already absorbed. The terms of the government’s standing offer of a financial bailout are so onerous that taking it up would be a last resort for most universities; the government should not be pushing them to that point.

Universities have faced disruption to research funding and ongoing uncertainty over fee income and pressure for potential rebates. At the same time, they have borne huge extra costs. And while the Horizon Europe deal is immensely welcome, questions remain over whether the cost of participation will lead to a drop in other promised science spending. 

The toll all this will take on research capacity has yet to play out, but an analysis of the impact of the latest Covid-19 surge in the United States suggested research output there could drop by a further 10 per cent at individual institutions by February.  

When the UK does begin to emerge from the pandemic, there will be a long recovery—of the economy, society, public health. University research will be critical to that process—it must not be another patient on the list.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight