Letters

September 12, 2013

REF noose round neck of academic freedom

Over the summer, my department asked me to prepare a research excellence framework impact statement based on work I had done six years ago (“Swansea’s REF plan diet hard to swallow”, News, 5 September). This came out of a collaboration with a young statistician from abroad who visited my research group for a year to learn about dynamic modelling. Our joint paper was a success and caught the attention of his government’s health division. He was therefore keen to push the work forward, so I helped but took a back seat.

As a senior researcher, part of my job is to train young faculty to develop into independent researchers. Well, this is what I thought, anyway, but six years later I realise my mistake. What I should have done was take ownership of the work, make sure my name was on everything and record, in minute detail, all evidence of impact. Based on these criteria, I did not do my job properly. I suppose that any day now my university could fire me, as can any university fire any academic who cannot put together a convincing impact statement.

Now, some readers might say it is illegal to instigate a policy of retrospective assessment of employees based on new criteria arbitrarily imposed by some suit. But if this were the case, then surely by now our universities would have sued the REF out of existence? By accepting this principle and thus setting a very dangerous precedent, we have, in effect, tightly applied the noose around the neck of academic freedom. All that is required of us now is a gentle nudge to send it to oblivion. Based on the track record of our generation of academics, we will be only too eager to oblige.

Philip Maini
Mathematical Institute
University of Oxford

‘Gag’ on money talking

Your article “Lib Dems accused of ‘gagging’ NUS” (4 September) contains criticisms made by Labour MPs of the transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill, which are wide of the mark.

First, the bill does not limit anyone’s capacity to comment on public policy per se, so a campaign of the kind run by the National Union of Students at the 2010 general election, which was non-partisan, would not be affected. Second, even if the NUS wished to stray into more partisan campaigning – against Liberal Democrat MPs, perhaps, or Labour or Tory representatives who also support tuition fees – it would not be “gagged” at all.

Just as under existing legislation, campaigners will be subject to limits not on what they say but on what they spend. This is an important principle of electoral law and has been for more than a century. If the bill becomes law, it would no more “gag” non-party campaigners than the 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act “gagged” candidates by limiting their election expenditure. The principle is that it is the power of an argument, not the size of a bank balance, that should determine electoral outcomes. The limit on election-related spending would be £390,000 per non-party campaign group, a quite substantial sum and one that I should imagine the NUS can only dream of spending anyway.

Lord Tyler
House of Lords

Blue skies over Atlantic

I was surprised to read the article resulting from my interview with Times Higher Education as it puts a bit of a negative gloss on a win-win situation (“US rules apply to joint research, UK funder admits”, News, 5 September). Research Councils UK and the US National Science Foundation have put an agreement in place for researchers wishing to apply for UK-US collaborative research funding, which is good news for the research community and a step forward in enabling Anglo-American collaborations.

As two of the strongest and best resourced research systems in the world, the UK and the US have long been partners. Now the RCUK-NSF agreement will make the collaborative process as simple and as flexible as possible.

Researchers are now able to apply for collaborative funding through existing responsive mechanisms with a minimum of extra paperwork, allowing international proposals to be directly judged against national ones. The experts, be they researchers or peer reviewers, get to decide if collaboration makes sense. This not only strengthens existing research ties between the UK and the US but, by avoiding “double jeopardy” in funding applications, also removes some of the barriers facing international collaboration.

As a two-way lead agency agreement, the RCUK-NSF deal allows for peer review to be managed through one agency’s systems, saving work for applicants and funders. Both the UK and the US do, however, remain fully involved in the peer review process. In addition, the normal conditions for funding research for both agencies are in place for collaborative arrangements.

Transatlantic blue-skies research with a simplified application process is welcome news for both funders and the academic community. We want to encourage researchers to take advantage of this exciting new process.

Paul Boyle
Chief executive, Economic and Social Research Council
International champion, RCUK
President, Science Europe

Ancient insurance

Siana Bangura (Letters, 29 August) and Peter Millican (5 September) miss the point in the Oxford or Cambridge Ucas debate. The ability to apply to both ancient universities simultaneously never need imply an equal obligation on both to pursue full process for all candidates.

In 1975, against much advice that it was pointless, I insisted on the University of Cambridge as my first choice and the University of Oxford as my second, followed by three highly reputable universities in the South of England. I was interviewed that December at the Cambridge college my (local state) school had proposed by an extremely late, highly eccentric and really rather unpleasant elderly tutor. Although it was a big disappointment to be emphatically rejected, in truth I was greatly relieved, given the dislike we had evidently taken to each other and the nagging realisation that I could have been very miserable.

But having subsequently achieved the full slate in my A levels, I was invited in August to visit the Oxford college (where I subsequently took two degrees) to be interviewed by two charming, polite and engaging young tutors. Two offered candidates had failed to attain their grades; since Oxford was on my Ucas form, would I by any chance be able and willing to come in six weeks’ time? I was thrilled to accept.

Cambridge and Oxford admission will always be highly unpredictable for individual candidates. In my main subject, Cambridge regarded itself as entirely superior. I should have put Oxford first, but my parents and school had persuaded me to try for Cambridge and I did not want to disappoint. Insurance policies rarely pay off and obviously rightly, but that is never a reason not to insure, or to be allowed to insure. The option open to me – despite being rarely of practical value, I accept – should now be reinstated.

Mark H. Robson
Honorary research fellow
Lady Margaret Hall
University of Oxford

Cause for celebration

Regarding your story “‘Low quality’ non-EU students will be cut” (News, 22 August). INTO University of Exeter is not run by INTO University Partnerships: it is a 50:50 joint venture between Exeter and the firm, although the university, quite rightly, maintains full control over admissions and academic standards, including absolute discretion over admissions.

Of the 246 students completing foundation studies at the university in June, more than 98 per cent passed the course; of those, 59 per cent achieved distinctions. This reflects a consistent improvement in results for every cohort since 2010.

It should come as no surprise that many students are attracted to accounting programmes at Exeter, as it has consistently ranked in the UK top 10 for finance degrees. In 2012, 331 students from the INTO centre progressed to Exeter undergraduate courses. Of those, around 20 per cent were Chinese students who went on to accounting and finance degrees.

The centre operates a number of university validated programmes designed to prepare students for entry to first- or second-year undergraduate studies. It also offers academic preparation for postgraduate study alongside an extensive suite of English language support.

INTO and the university share a commitment to delivering student experiences and outcomes consistent with a world-class institution. The centre represents a vibrant and diverse international community, with 57 nationalities represented within the cohort.

There are many challenges facing the UK as it competes to attract the best overseas students: let’s celebrate the attractiveness of one of the UK’s finest universities in this tough market.

Jeremy Lindley
Managing director (Europe, Middle East and Africa)
INTO University Partnerships

Free to walk ‘Green Line’

Guidance recently issued by the European Commission relating to European Union funding for projects in Israel and the so-called “disputed territories” makes it clear that it is open to any Israeli institution whose “legal address” is within the 1949 armistice line (the “Green Line”) to apply for funding in respect of projects located anywhere in the territories (“Horizon 2020 rules may see Israel pass up research cash”, News, 5 September).

I myself have received such an assurance from the Commission.

Geoffrey Alderman
University of Buckingham

Neural net cast wider still

I thought that Raymond Tallis had gone too far when he introduced us to the term “neuromania” in 2011 (Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity). However, the award of an Economic and Social Research Council grant to Aberystwyth University scholar Mark Whitehead for research into “Negotiating neuroliberalism” does seem to confirm the current obsession with neural processes (29 August, Grant winners). Can we expect a study of neurocommunism to follow?

R. E. Rawles
Honorary research fellow in psychology
University College London

Paper weighting

I don’t quite get the “I’ve been teaching 30 years, why do I need a qualification?” argument. (“State puts weight behind teaching qualification data”, News, 29 August.) If experience is so superior, why do we offer degrees?

Let’s try a little experiment. Critics of the suggestion should work their way through the following list: cutting hair; driving; eye testing; defending clients in court; pulling teeth; performing appendectomies; flying commercial airliners; analysing cervical smears; supervising PhDs; teaching in primary schools; teaching in secondary schools; teaching in university. At which point would you be happy to accept a lack of qualifications? I suspect that most people would stop at cutting hair, especially if it were their own hair being cut at the time of the revelation.

Yes, I’m being silly. But the argument against teaching qualifications is pretty silly, too, particularly if the best reason that can be given is “I’m too busy doing research to get one”. I’m sure that will fill potential students with nothing but confidence.

Jonathan Baldwin
Cambridge

Headline acts

I enjoyed comparing two vice-chancellors’ summer reading material in “What are you reading?” (Books, 5 September). Both reached out to music: Russell Grouper David Eastwood was drawn to Brahms’ symphonies in full score and the “remarkable passacaglia that ends the fourth” (who could disagree?), while former 94 Groupie David Bell reminded us that “Roxy Music were ‘cool’ epitomised” (indeed!). As a jobbing dean, I enjoyed Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, which I bought expecting (from the title) to read about the pressures on British universities, but which turned out to be a terrific thriller; sadly, no passacaglia though.

Tony Gatrell
Lancaster

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