Islands worth the streams 1

September 30, 2010

Dame Nancy Rothwell's argument is not surprising ("Islands of excellence should not drain funding streams", 16 September). Like other Russell Group universities that have always taken the largest share of research funding, the University of Manchester wants to hold on to what it "rightly" has.

I can provide at least three reasons why the Higher Education Funding Council for England should not seek to protect funds for top institutions. First, in the cut-throat, divisive world which the academy seems to be turning into, we must not lose sight of two vital principles - fairness and accountability.

In the 1980s, when research-selectivity exercises were first introduced, the Universities Funding Council, and ultimately Hefce, began to hold institutions to account via their research data. Since then, assessment exercises have been developed and refined, and all higher education institutions have supported the principle of peer review, which underpins these evaluations. By funding on the basis of volume rather than excellence, we would ignore the results of rigorous evaluation and significant intellectual effort. What would this say about the sector and its notions of equity, comparability and accountability?

My second reason for supporting "islands of excellence" is a more practical one, which may appeal to funders for different reasons: value for money. I will use my own institution, the University for the Creative Arts, as an example. The income we gained from the various research assessment exercises has, by national standards, been tiny (£500,000 a year as a result of the 2008 RAE) - but we have delivered so much with it. Selective investment in the research potential and output of staff has yielded common benefits disproportionate to the investment made.

My final reason relates to the nature of the emerging research in post-1992 institutions. Much of it is capable of direct application, so the requirement to demonstrate "impact" has been welcomed by research leaders in these areas. For these reasons, we must protect research excellence wherever it is found.

Elaine Thomas, Vice-chancellor, University for the Creative Arts.

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