Protectionism of the 'old school tie' variety 1

October 29, 2009

I am a great believer in elitism, much to the annoyance of many colleagues who say that what I actually believe in is excellence ("V-c: focus research cash or 'mediocrity' awaits", 22 October).

However, I believe in the original definition of elitism: being outstanding through leadership in your field. The downside of this is that one can never rest on one's laurels. The trouble with Michael Arthur's argument for greater research concentration is that it unashamedly portrays an unattractive British twist on elitism: the "old school tie" attitude that wallows in glories past.

In some Russell Group institutions, there are undoubtedly world-leading researchers behind whom mediocrity hides. This contrasts with the model underpinning US research-intensive universities' successes in international league tables: essentially, if scholars don't keep bringing in external grant funding they are fired, and faculty status is a distant prize awarded only to those with extensive track records.

The 2008 research assessment exercise clearly revealed that some world-leading research can be found in the former polytechnics. Indeed, those former polytechnics are now rapidly and aggressively pursuing patents and commercial exploitation of their own brand of intellectual elitism, all to the benefit of the British economy. Elite research here is (and should be) a competitive, hand-to-mouth affair that befits the title "elite", not simply "privileged".

I think Arthur should examine Higher Education Funding Council for England reports on Higher Education Innovation Fund activity before proposing that only the Russell Group can deliver innovation and economic recovery. What he proposes is not elitism, but simply protectionism: it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of the 21st-century academic.

Ray Iles, Associate dean for research, School of Health and Social Sciences, Middlesex University.

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