Key themes

As a research cluster, we are committed to collaborative working across disciplines, national and global contexts and with a wide range of stakeholders in government, the media, industry and wider society.

Our practice

Our work is addressed to intellectual, professional and public debates about:

  • System change and policy reform
  • Internationalisation and student mobility
  • Academic practice and research cultures
  • Historical method and the history of the sciences and humanities

Higher education is defined broadly to encompass all the main settings of tertiary education, including colleges, universities, the workplace and the virtual world.


The global university

Higher education and science diplomacy, international mobility and nation-building

Universities are national assets which also act as a ‘window on the world’ and rely on high levels of openness and connectedness. They bring in resources and talent from abroad, as well as attracting global attention and esteem.

National governments support, to a greater or lesser extent, the efforts of their universities to climb ranking exercises, and outperform neighbouring or competitor countries on a range of indicators.

Scientific and higher education networks also play a growing role in international diplomacy, by promoting international understanding and exercising soft power.

Yet despite a broad literature about the role of HE in nation-building in the developing world, less attention has been paid to the role that HE systems play in forming national and post-national identities and civic attitudes in developed nations.

In the UK context, Brexit will bring a period of turbulence and reconfiguration of our frameworks of national security, economy and society. HE institutions could assist in this process or be perceived as indifferent or even hostile towards new local and national orders, hopes and aspirations.


The research university 

Research cultures, evaluation and meta-research

Worldwide, the field of ‘research on research’ or ‘meta-research’ is advancing rapidly. There is now expanding potential to combine metrics, analytics and machine learning with a mix of qualitative methods, expert judgement and horizon scanning to provide real-time intelligence on how research systems and HE institutions are performing, and the changing dynamics of disciplines, impacts, diversity and concentration within them.

It is a field that can only grow in importance. Over the next decade, funders, policymakers and institutions will need greater capacity in meta-research in order to navigate the dizzying scale of the scientific enterprise; the rapid emergence of new players; the spiralling costs of micro, meso and macro-level evaluations; the premium placed on collaboration; and challenges around reproducibility, incentives and career pathways.

In the UK and elsewhere, meta-research is underfunded and geographically scattered. More effort is required to develop theoretical frameworks, standardise methods, strengthen networks, build academic-user partnerships, and test the transferability of evidence and approaches from one area to others. This is particularly crucial in a dynamic, competitive research environment such as the UK.


The engaged university

Epistemic value, freedom and autonomy

Universities are increasingly under pressure to demonstrate their public value. Although the main expression of in the UK system is a demand for ‘impact’, ‘accountability’ and ‘greater value for money’, it is not clear that these transitional goals will deliver the hoped for public goods.

UK universities already produce a great many public benefits (from attracting investment, boosting tax revenue, reducing health costs, and increasing the likelihood of voting and volunteering). A focus on externally imposed goals may erode academic autonomy and the freedom to investigate.


The civic university

Networks, connections and place

Universities are not just places where research is conducted and classes are taught. They are also anchor institutions that polarise (for better or for worse) the localities in which they are situated. In addition, their significance is felt in the networks they participate in and their connections with civil society. Thus, collaborations outside of academia and geographic mobility play important roles in shaping the ways in which universities participate in creating a sense of ‘place’ in their regions.

In their civic role, universities can help develop effective regional planning, support local interests in national industrial strategies and boost investment into hard to reach localities. However, limitations abound: regional inequalities are reflected in the resources garnered by universities and universities can often stand out as bubbles of affluence in less affluent regions. This ‘town/gown’ contrast was reflected in voting patterns during the Brexit referendum.

Flagship institutes

The University’s four flagship institutes bring together our key strengths to tackle global issues, turning interdisciplinary and translational research into real-world solutions.