I have been following the "islands of excellence" discussion with some interest. In essence, there seems to be an objection to the centres of research excellence springing up across the UK, as recognised in the final RAE (but also noticeable in the rather diverse range of experts now used by Radio 4's Today programme). This objection seems to be largely about resource allocation, but there is a strong counter-argument to be made.
If you live in the UK's most heavily populated urban areas, there is now a university near you that is likely to have at least one centre of research excellence, which could be the gateway for you and your family to study with internationally recognised scholars. The ability to study near home is an increasingly important issue, especially for those groups under-represented in today's academy. These centres can also enrich the life of their host universities and provide an opportunity for local businesses to link up with research leaders and access new ideas and facilities.
So, is not taking academic and research excellence to the people in this way a noble ideal? The alternative - concentrating major research funding on a chosen few institutions, remote from most ordinary people and in many cases populated by the products of the public school system - would be a bad thing for society and contrary to the government's wish to increase opportunities for everyone.
It therefore follows that we should try to discover more of these "islands" - and help them grow into continents!
John Smart, University of Brighton.
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