Capacity 'wasted' amid radical cuts

Queen's is 'squandering' the research talent on its doorstep, alumnus says. Hannah Fearn reports

July 16, 2009

A university has been accused of "routinely squandering" the potential of its young researchers on the eve of a radical overhaul of its research strategy.

Queen's University Belfast has announced a restructuring programme it has said is vital if it is to achieve its ambition of joining the ranks of the top 100 universities in the world. As Times Higher Education has reported, it will cull 103 jobs and has pledged to plough the savings made into areas where it believes it can excel internationally.

Peter Gregson, vice-chancellor of Queen's, said the objective was to get "the right people doing the right things".

However, in a letter to Times Higher Education, Stephen Rainey, who was awarded a PhD in philosophy by the university, responded to the plans by accusing Queen's of failing to make the most of the resources available to it.

"The recent cuts announced by Queen's were in response to poor records of research by academics," he said. "Doubtless there are some relative freeloaders. However, at the highest level of student research - the PhD - Queen's has a huge amount of research capacity ... that it routinely squanders."

Dr Rainey said there was no mechanism for people earning doctorates to "give back to their alma mater".

And he claimed that academics' focus on their own standing was taking precedence over support for young researchers who could help boost the institution's reputation.

"Queen's' solutions to problems are always based on the model of punitive countermeasures: wait for something to happen, then cut, trim or punish so it doesn't happen again," Dr Rainey said.

"Were it to concentrate upon innovative ways to stimulate research, it would obviate the need for massive cuts in the future. A good place to start would be harnessing the research talent it has on its doorstep."

Duncan Connors, spokesman for the National Postgraduate Committee, agreed that universities should tap into this pool of talent. He pointed to universities in the US that allow students seven years to do their PhDs and get them to teach and take on departmental duties. UK universities, he said, focused too much on postgraduates who had secured research council funding.

A spokeswoman for Queen's insisted that the university was "investing significantly in research excellence, not cutting back".

She said: "Nurturing the next generation of research is a key aspect of our work. In line with (funding council) guidelines, PhD research was submitted to the research assessment exercise when carried out jointly with an academic member of staff. Such research was a component of the portfolio ... submitted in RAE 2008."

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