How ODA funding benefits the UK’s higher education sector

ODA funding has become integral to UK university research and international strategies

The Newton Fund and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) form part of the UK’s Official Development Assistance (sometimes known as UK Aid). These funds have not been around long (2014/15) but they’ve already had far reaching impact.

ODA promotes economic development and welfare in developing countries. But the benefits can also be found closer to home. UK universities receive ODA to fund new research and innovation with international partners to tackle development challenges. At Universities UK international we are eager to find out more and quantify these benefits.

In August 2020 we conducted a pilot survey of the impact that ODA funding (in particular the Newton Fund and GCRF) had on the UK higher education sector. Universities told us why these programmes are beneficial and why they should continue beyond 2021.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that the funded projects focus on contributing to global challenges, including the sustainable development goals. Projects use the principle of co-creation and equitable partnership with partners based in developing countries. They are helping to:

  • solve prevalent medical needs (including rapid response to the Covid-19 pandemic)
  • address displacement issues due to conflict or natural disaster (e.g. University of East Anglia working with partners in India, Colombia, Guatemala and Ecuador)
  • safeguard cultural heritage (e.g. Durham University working with partners in Nepal)
  • develop local clean energy solutions (e.g. Brunel University London working with partners in India)
  • clean our oceans (e.g. Strathclyde University working with 22 partners across Africa and the Pacific Islands)

This is to name but a few examples.

We also found that the funds have led to benefits for the UK’s higher education sector. They help the UK to be a ‘research partner of choice’ with leading universities internationally. This means universities in emerging economies look to partner with the UK first. They also help the UK to be recognised as a global leader in addressing specific challenges such as clean water and renewable energy. They have led to an increase in the number of co-authored publications in major international peer-reviewed journals. This makes UK research more globally prominent.

These projects have also led to joint developments with UK industry. For example, University of Leicester’s face mask sampling technology to detect TB infection in Africa has been adapted to detect infections of Covid-19 in the UK.

UK researchers are delivering cutting-edge research that transcends disciplines. Their universities have established cross-disciplinary research institutes and centres with global reach. Strategies have been studded with the principles of international development. They have established partnerships with key organisations in developing countries. These are systemic changes within the higher education sector.

But there is scope for improvement. Survey respondents told us that ODA funding programmes are too complex. More work must be done on the key principle of equitable partnerships. And the funds need to align more with research processes in the Global South to truly realise equity.

Maintaining a full gamut of supporting activities and opportunities is crucial for a successful research and innovation system aimed at international development. That means agile funding streams (including GCRF Quality Related/institutional awards), workshops, capacity building, networking and large-scale research projects.

Universities in the UK are committed. They want to be at the forefront of global development and see their programmes reach their full potential for impact.

By Dajana Dzanovic, Head of Strategic Partnerships at Universities UK International

Twitter: @UUKIntl, @dajdz