We need collaboration, not concentration 1

January 22, 2009

Michael Arthur, the vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, fears that the loss of a "critical mass" at the research-intensive universities will damage Britain's research environment, leading to "well-funded mediocrity" by dispersing available funds more widely ("Steering QR cash to elite could be a 'mistake'", 15 January).

But the evidence of the research assessment exercise confounds this view, demonstrating that "world-leading" work can be found across the spectrum of universities and not only in those elite institutions that have, up to now, received the lion's share of research funding.

What is rated as "world-leading" work produced by London Metropolitan University has been measured on the same scale as that "world-leading" work emanating from the University of Leeds. In the unit of assessment in which I was entered (UoA 66), 15 per cent of the work submitted by London Met was rated 4*. Leeds also managed 15 per cent at 4* in this unit of assessment.

We submitted work by 13 academics against Leeds' 19. Although this is perhaps not a vast difference in numbers, it represents a huge difference in the proportion of eligible staff submitted by our respective institutions when you consider that Leeds is home to the (presumably) lavishly funded Institute of Communications Studies, which has more than 50 academic staff, including eight professors.

There is no evidence that having such a critical mass results in better-quality research, or more of it, than is produced by less well-funded universities. On this basis, it is difficult to accept the credibility of Arthur's alarmist vision of widely dispersed mediocrity resulting from a fair and reasonable distribution of funding in accordance with the RAE results.

The answer to the problem of reduced funding at the research-intensive universities will be increased collaboration with those of us in less-prestigious institutions, not further concentration of funding in the hands of these few universities to the overall detriment of the research community in the UK.

None of this is intended to denigrate the excellent work undertaken by the communications scholars at Leeds, but it is galling to see their vice-chancellor demanding a bigger slice of the funding pie than its RAE results justify.

Mike Chopra-Gant, Reader in media, culture and communications, London Metropolitan University.

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