How can government make the most of UK universities?

12 June 2017


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How can government make the most of UK universities?

Reported by Dr Clare Moran, CSaP Research Associate & Policy Fellowships Coordinator

Last month, CSaP Policy Fellows came together to discuss how government could make more use of universities. The meeting was joined by members of the CSaP Affiliate Network - representatives from the University of Southampton, Sheffield, Bath, and King’s College London.

With increasing interest in how universities can engage with policy, this meeting provided a chance to review the opportunities this presented. Four policy institutes from Southampton, Sheffield, Bath and King's outlined their policy impact activities, and the history of their formation. Recently formed, the activities offered ranged from traditional seminars and research communication activities such as blogs and policy briefs, to more resource-intensive processes of relationship building, such as seconding academics into central government departments, or hosting research projects from policy makers.

The conversation quickly focused on mechanisms for research-policy engagement. We discussed the opportunity for universities to generate expertise on issues that are on the horizon for policy-makers, and the need for universities to understand the political priorities of government. Similarly, both universities and government needed to consider how their organisations are structured to make their boundaries more porous, for example whether specialist units in Whitehall are an effective conduit for academic research. Participants agreed that relationships between government and universities work best when they are long-term, and embedded, with high levels of trust and familiarity - themes emphasised in the academic literature on knowledge mobilisation.

CSaP Policy Fellows elaborated on their own experiences of engaging with universities and academic research outside of the Policy Fellowship. This had worked effectively when universities had proactively marketed their expertise within a particular policy domain, or where expertise had been made highly visible, particularly evidenced in publications not hidden behind a paywall. Blogs were an effective way to increase the visibility and relevance of research, allowing academics to move into the discursive space historically occupied by think tanks, but with a more neutral tone, free of political affiliation. Fellows emphasised the need for mechanisms that can bring new ideas into the Whitehall machine, and directly to Ministers.

We agreed that the increasing number of policy institutes representing UK universities provided a useful service in raising the visibility of relevant academics in their faculties, and a ‘gatekeeper’ function per institution. Policy professionals have long wished for a national database of academics, and we heard that new services are in development that might go some way to addressing this, such as the Evidence Information Service.

To hear more about the Policy Fellows’ working lunches, the CSaP Affiliate Network, or the topics raised in this discussion, please email