Skip to Content
Back to resources
Published by

Sarah Chaytor, Chris Hewson, Andy Brown, Laura Bea

05 July 2024, 7:00 UTC Share

What can the next government do to strengthen academic-policy engagement? 

The current funding crisis in higher education has arrived in the context of declining attention, across the political spectrum, upon how the sector might preserve its world leading status. Following its landslide victory, all eyes will be on the Labour Government to see how it will respond to current issues within Higher Education.

In the case of the evolving relationship between academia and the policy world, one can still point to significant developments over the last five years – such as the emergence of new mechanisms such as Areas of Research Interest (ARIs), the Government Office for Science (GOS) navigator tool, various Policy Profession initiatives, large funder investments in place-based policymaking and connectivity in the evidence-policy landscape, and of course, myriad examples of the role research expertise has played during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The Labour Party has intimated that Higher Education will be a ‘day one priority’ for the new administration, but this is framed within a context that the Institute for Fiscal studies has described as a set of “‘unpalatable’ choices around capping student numbers, raising tuition fees, reintroducing direct grants, to tackle the financial challenges facing the sector. It is clear that university leaders must demonstrate, in a robust and evidenced manner, the value of their institutions to the new government for the task of renewal – specifically in terms of Labour’s ‘five missions to rebuild Britain’. The academic-policy interface represents an important part of this value proposition. In the spirit of contribution to this debate, the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) asked our membership – of over 110 UK HEIs across all four nations – what the new government could and should do to strengthen evidence informed policy engagement. Five themes emerged from 36 responses.  

  1. Coordination  

The UK benefits from “excellent structures” to support engagement with evidence and expertise – such as the Evaluation Task Force, the 10 Downing Street Data Science Team (10DS), the Open Innovation Team, the Chief Scientific Advisors (CSAs), and of course, UPEN. However, silos continue to persist, with a lack of “join up” within government a constant frustration, and this is not a one-way street. There is a shared perception that the lack of stable docking points is exacerbated by an HE sector within which participants prioritise institutional advantage and have internalised competition over collaboration. A key priority for UPEN, over the next two to three years, will be to normalise a more collaborative approach to informing public policy with evidence and expertise, through targeted approaches to embedding connectivity across the ecosystem. Our members have repeatedly emphasised the importance of such approaches, including:  

  • more cross-departmental collaboration around cross-cutting policy issues and evidence needs;  
  • support in working with interdisciplinarity and trans-disciplinarity evidence bases, alongside a funding and support structure to encourage academic engagement;  
  • a joined-up approach to communicating evidence needs (such as ARIs, colleges of experts, and research showcase events). 
  1. Capacity 

Recent years have seen a noticeable increase in efforts and investments to strengthen and build capacity for policy engagement within both universities and localities, including the creation of UPEN itself, as well as the introduction of the QR-Policy Support Fund (PSF) mechanism by Research England, the new ESRC-supported Local Policy Innovation Parnerships, and the Research England Development Fund investments in CAPE, Y-PERN, and Insights North East. This has been mirrored by an upsurge in dedicated HEI knowledge brokerage units and policy shops, designed to sustain and build upon existing capacity. To build on these ongoing developments, UPEN members also called for:  

  • continuing dedicated and ringfenced investment in academic-policy engagement infrastructure, such as PSF, offered on longer term funding cycles;  
  • a strengthening of evidence use infrastructure within government, through more visible and better resourced points of contact;  
  • targeted resources for devolved and local decision makers, in order to enhance capacity across all regions and nations of the UK.  
  1. Recognition  

The utilisation and recognition of academic contributions to policymaking were unsurprisingly key areas of focus for UPEN’s membership. This was particularly important in terms of valuing academic-policy engagement within academic career development, including but not limited to the need for recognition in relation to the production of impact case studies for the REF. Members also called for greater transparency and acknowledgement of how research is used once submitted to consultations, inquiries, and ARIs, alongside clearer communication of the decision processes that frame research use. 

There was also a plea from members for government to value the different forms and varieties of evidence and expertise that are offered across the HE sector, in order to generate increased buy-in for the idea that R&D is central to the process of developing policies that work. Similarly, it was suggested that government should be careful in how ‘evidence failure’ is presented when policies are perceived or presented as unsuccessful, as this has knock-on effects around wider public trust in science and research. This requires:  

  • further consideration on how government and parliament recognise written and oral evidence used to develop and implement policy, as well as the researchers engaged in policy processes;  
  • building strong incentives for HEI’s and individual researchers to engage with government, working with HEI’s to encourage further collaborative engagement 
  1. Valuing a diversity of evidence  

In 2021, the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s ‘rethinking policy impact’ programme noted the significant role of “disruptive research’ that may influence policy indirectly (or directly) through “shifting of the parameters of debate, or shaping the agendas of groups or movements that are not the mainstream of policymaking.” Overall, UPEN members were keen to encourage a reframing of the ways in which evidence is understood and navigated within public policymaking. Crucially, this includes building and nurturing the skills and confidence of civil servants and policymakers to deploy evidence based on different methodologies.  

Some of these asks included:  

  • moving away from an overly quantitative approach, or at least one that views economic models as the sine qua non of all policy formulation and is comfortable embracing mixed methodology approaches – a model championed by UPEN’s own Arts and Humanities subcommittee, and within the British Academy’s SHAPE approach to national policy challenges;
  • alongside this, building capacity for decision makers to engage with a diversity of evidence – such as the arts and humanities and research working with lived experience – across all cross-cutting policy issues.  

    5. Visibility of academic-policy engagement opportunities 

Finally, the need to craft initiatives and opportunities to connect with and inform public policy, and promote these equitably, continues to be a key priority for our members. The UPEN newsletter is consistently cited as a useful mechanism for rendering academic-policy engagement more accessible to a wider range of research and professional staff across the HE sector. Alongside this, members called for: 

  • Increased visibility of civil servants working in particular policy areas, including publishing job titles, key responsibilities, and contact details (even if to a shared email);
  • The need to embed an improved understanding of how ministers and governments make policy decisions into HE capability building initiatives;
  • The regular publishing and updating of Areas of Research Interest (ARIs), with opportunities for the academic community to engage in their co-production and be supported (and funded) in delivering evidence and interacting with them. Indeed, UPEN events with various department ARIs has regularly seen high attendance and engagement, with feedback showing the value of the opportunity for academics to engage directly with ARI teams;
  • A driving of more engagement and coproduction with the UK research community on parliamentary policy issues and scrutiny of government.
  • An improvement in guidance for disciplines that do not traditionally engage, that includes both tips and tricks, as well as examples of successful engagement. 


There will clearly be many opportunities to engage as the new administration finds its feet and seeks to develop an evidence base to support the delivery programmes that will underpin its five missions. UPEN looks forward to playing an active role in supporting the government achieve its R&D ambitions, as well as supporting universities as they continue to build their policy engagement functions, seek to prove their value to local, regional and national renewal, and build a more connected and collaborative UK research community.

Have further thoughts on this topic? Email to write a blog for us, and potentially publish with Times Higher Education Campus through our partnership.  

Get in touch with us on 

Sign up to our newsletter here  

Tweet us your thoughts: @PolicyUPEN

Back to resources