Leader: Build a research elite and ensure freedom for rest

February 14, 2003

There is no point trying to stop academics doing research. Even in new universities, which have almost no official funding for it, research goes on, papers are published and research degrees are awarded.

Yesterday the Higher Education Funding Council for England discussed government enthusiasm for a new top layer of research departments in which cash can be concentrated. Its approach is driven in part by the council's inability to fund all the worthwhile research going on in universities.

From the point of view of new universities, and of departments aspiring to move up the rankings, this change is an ominous one, although it will be popular in the Treasury and in the few universities that get most of the cash. Both rightly regard it as a priority for the UK to have a limited number of well-resourced top departments that ensure British standing in world citation tables.

But the idea also shows that new universities are right to plan their research futures on the basis of little or no funding council backing.

Instead, they are forced to build connections with Europe, companies, emerging regional authorities, the voluntary sector, the National Health Service and the professions to raise money for research and to establish networks that ensure that they are in touch with the latest knowledge.

Building up research piecemeal without funding council backing will produce academics who stay connected to the outside world and to the student body, which ought to improve the students' employability as well as their university experience. The disadvantage is that assembling a DIY research programme risks departments getting uncomfortably close to funders they cannot afford to annoy, and performing business consultancy instead of research. Clear understandings about independence and freedom to publish, as well as a willingness to say no to money when it is offered on the wrong terms, are essential to universities wanting to operate in this way.

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