Go back

Navigating the Covid storm

Image: Grace Eliz for Research Professional

Universities need help to unlock an innovation-led recovery, say Tomas Coates Ulrichsen and Leonard Kelleher

After the initial shock of the first lockdown, the Covid-19 pandemic continued to hugely disrupt the university system through the ‘ongoing crisis’ period of August 2020 to July 2021.

This had, and continues to have, a major impact on universities’ ability to contribute to innovation.

While institutions across the country can see many opportunities to help deliver government priorities, they are struggling with a lack of resources, difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff and challenges to working internationally, particularly with partners in Europe.

Unless mitigated, the scale of these problems will limit the ability of universities to play their part in helping the nation and local economies to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic.

Same storm, different boats

Working with the National Centre for Universities and Business, we surveyed university leaders and senior managers across the country about their pandemic experiences. Detailed responses from 51 universities reveal that while they all battled through the same Covid-19 storm, their experiences of it were very different.

The ‘ongoing crisis’ phase was dominated by national lockdowns and restrictions short of a lockdown, until all Covid rules were ended in July 2021. During this period, some universities saw significant declines in innovation activities with many types of partner.

Others, though, saw increases (see Figure 1). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest increases were seen in activities with hospitals and other health organisations. More surprising was that, while activities with small and medium sized enterprises generally suffered, just over a quarter of universities managed to increase activity with this type of partner.

Smaller, more teaching-driven universities saw innovation links hit hardest. Larger and more research-intensive universities, which were particularly badly affected during the first national lockdown in spring 2020, seem more likely to have ‘bounced back’.


Disruption, deadlines and moving milestones

Many universities also reported having to extend deadlines for innovation-related projects and delay start dates.

But several found that the challenges of projects being cancelled or refocused towards short-term partner needs were beginning to ease even during the ongoing crisis. This is encouraging, as it suggests that partners found ways to maintain links with universities and have begun to shift their focus from crisis response back towards long-term objectives. 

Universities were a key driver of the global, national and local R&D responses to the Covid-19 crisis. Crucial to enabling their ability to respond was the strength of their relationships with partners and their ability to adapt them, and their capacity and capability to support these types of interactions.

Also important was the strategic ability of universities to develop and implement solutions to identified problems—such as those thrown up by national lockdowns. This included, for example, finding ways to bring together small pockets of funding from different sources around the university to create a single, flexible and challenge-led funding pot able to pump-prime projects at sufficient scale to make significant progress tackling specific Covid challenges. But uncertainties and rapidly changing demands, coupled with a lack of funding for developing and translating ideas into innovative applications, are hampering their ability to respond.

Post-pandemic innovation

Looking at the recovery from the pandemic, our work shows that most universities—regardless of size and research intensity—see significant opportunities to work within their local economy to support innovation and prosperity, in line with one of the government’s main policy goals (see Figure 2). 

Universities based in less prosperous parts of the UK are much more likely than others to see opportunities for working with companies to raise productivity and efficiency, to address the innovation needs of small and medium-sized businesses and to develop workforce skills; all of which will be important for helping to ‘level-up’ economic prosperity across the country.


Worryingly for the UK government’s Global Britain ambitions, though, relatively few university leaders saw significant and viable strategic opportunities for building international collaborations to drive innovation.

While gaps in resources to facilitate these collaborations are part of the problem, universities highlighted other, more structural issues. Post-Brexit disruptions to international scientific collaborations and disrupted access to international academic labour markets are major concerns.

Moving forward

The pandemic continues to hugely disrupt the university system and its ability to contribute to innovation. While universities see viable strategic opportunities for contributing to the recovery, resource and capability gaps inhibit their ability to seize them.

Those responding to our survey need not only additional funding to allow them to pursue opportunities aligned with key government priorities—such as levelling up and the commercialisation of emerging technologies—but also greater efforts to tackle inefficiencies and issues within the country’s funding and innovation systems.

This includes longstanding problems such as the short notice of major funding calls, limited availability of follow-on funding, lack of coordination of funding and support across government departments, and the need to strengthen the ability of companies to engage with knowledge generated within universities.

Moving forward, we need to see universities as part of a wider system of innovation and identify key constraints and bottlenecks that are hampering their ability to work with partners to drive innovation.

Solutions to these problems will give us the greatest chance of positioning universities at the heart of the innovation-led renewal called for in the UK’s recovery strategy.

Tomas Coates Ulrichsen is the director of the University Commercialisation and Innovation Policy Evidence Unit at the University of Cambridge. Leonard Kelleher is a research associate at the unit.