Concentrated but weaker?

February 10, 2011

David Colquhoun suggests that my colleagues and I misrepresented his views on research concentration ("Now, concentrate", Letters, 3 February). Our previous letter ( January) accurately reflected the Times Higher Education interview that reported that Colquhoun "said that goal (concentration) would be achieved only by confining all research activity to pre-1992 universities" ("More concentration needed", 20 January).

Helpfully, Colquhoun provides a link to a prior article in The Times where he outlines a scheme restricting honours teaching, doctoral study and research to "grandes écoles" with the majority of undergraduates studying general ordinary degrees. He offers this as the "least bad solution" to government cuts.

Rather than the reinscription of a hermetic and hierarchical system, the best response to government cuts would be for academics to shake off the false consciousness that divides the sector and to join their students in resisting the present politicisation of university funding.

Research concentration and the myth of the mission groups are not in the best interests of universities; they are the result of lobbying in the self-interest of certain institutions. It is perverse to argue that the research community benefits from longer, larger grants held by fewer people while so many excellent projects go unfunded.

My colleagues and I fully support Colquhoun's desire to ensure that the UK is able to provide outstanding environments for doctoral research. However, what is at stake here is the even-handed, arm's-length principles that previously informed the decisions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the research councils, such as funding "like for like provision" and "excellence wherever it is found". It is these ideals that are under erosion and that some, such as Paul Trayhurn (Letters, 3 February), are all too willing to justify as "the reality of research concentration".

Martin McQuillan, Dean of arts and social sciences Kingston University.

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