No stars for Hefce's mixed messages

May 5, 2011

Like Michael Rayner ("Star signs and bad omens", 28 April), I too was dismayed to learn of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's intention in 2011-12 to reduce by more than two-thirds the funding for research rated 2* ("internationally recognised") by the 2008 research assessment exercise, with the resources saved reallocated to 3* and 4* work. There will be numerous unintended consequences to all this.

This reduction in 2* funding is inconsistent with the stated research excellence framework guidance that the impact of research will be assessed in relation to work of 2* quality and above. So, a mixed message is being transmitted: on the one hand, 2* research will be valued in the context of impact, but on the other, it will not be held to be of similar worth in fiscal terms.

In my opinion, devaluing 2* research will erode the research base on which much of the UK's 3* and 4* excellence stands. It will probably discourage potential academic staff, since the majority of university lecturers enter higher education because they want to be knowledge producers, not just knowledge reproducers. Taking away so much 2* funding will erode the possibility of realising this aspiration for many colleagues.

I write this letter not as a representative of my particular university or discipline within UK higher education, but as an individual who is concerned about what is happening to academia and to public services more generally. I say this as a chartered psychologist who knows only too well the value of seeing "change as a challenge and an opportunity", rather than necessarily as a threat and a negative.

However, my ability to retain my rose-tinted spectacles is being severely tested. As one student protest banner proclaimed recently, our austerity does appear to be others' prosperity.

Mark McDermott, Professor of psychology, University of East London

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