Star-spangled clangers

November 22, 2012

There are two serious problems with recruiting big-name researchers in the run-up to the research excellence framework ("Reach for the stars", 1 November).

First, the financial headroom required to make these appointments is usually made by cutting back on support infrastructure - increasing the administrative burden carried by academic staff. Further, the star appointees negotiate substantially reduced teaching, which in turn increases the teaching loads on staff already in post. Taken together, these phenomena have a significant demoralising effect, with the productivity lost as a result never accounted for by universities' planning processes.

Second, it is axiomatic that in British universities teaching income subsidises research activities. It was easy to hide this when funding was allocated in the form of block grants, with institutions free to prioritise their spending. But under the new fees regime, with teaching income based on students individually taking out loans, the subsidy is much harder to justify.

Unfortunately, we are unlikely to address these issues any time soon. Vice-chancellors are too far removed from reality to know much about the morale among their academic staff, and the student population does not appear to be numerate enough to do back-of-the-envelope calculations about how exactly their money is spent.

Mahesan Niranjan, University of Southampton.

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