Cash focus a 'recipe for complacency'

Academics give short shrift to call to concentrate funding on Russell Group elite. Zoe Corbyn reports

October 29, 2009

A call to drop the policy of funding excellent research wherever it is found was always going to be controversial.

That the proposal was made by Michael Arthur, chair of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, and would improve the lot of the research elite made the backlash all the more inevitable.

As Times Higher Education reported, the vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds told a Higher Education Policy Institute conference that funding dispensed by the forthcoming research excellence framework should be concentrated on 25 to 30 universities.

He warned of a "progression to mediocrity" if research cash continued to be awarded to pockets of excellence found elsewhere in the sector. These pockets were identified by the 2008 research assessment exercise, which the REF will replace.

Professor Arthur argued that the UK's international standing, profile and performance would drop away unless the policy was rethought.

But academics have mounted a spirited defence of the status quo on the Times Higher Education website, pointing out that the UK already operates one of the world's most highly concentrated research-funding models.

The source of the comments has not gone unnoticed, with readers accusing the Russell Group chair of self-serving remarks that are not backed up by evidence.

"This is a plan to waste a lot of talent in an attempt to preserve a position at the top table that has not been earned on merit," says one of dozens of comments posted online.

Another adds: "I think we should take Professor Arthur's proposal one step further: let's concentrate all the research money on the University of Leeds! Our real goal should be to prop up the members of the Russell Group because - well, they're members of the Russell Group."

Readers' anger was echoed by the Million+, University Alliance and Guild HE mission groups, which represent a mixture of new and teaching-led institutions.

Andrew Wathey, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University and deputy chairman of the University Alliance, accused the Russell Group of inciting "unfounded panic".

He said that the proposals would see funding taken away from "world-leading" (4*) pockets of excellence to support a long tail of lower-quality 1* and 2* research in a selection of universities that had simply been successful in the past.

"The guaranteed 'road to mediocrity' is surely to fund research based on heritage rather than excellence," he said. "It is the principle of funding excellence in research that has driven up the quality of the UK's research base. This principle is not a luxury but an essential."


- "Not to fund excellence, wherever it is found, is as barbaric as denying women or people from comprehensive schools access to our universities."

- "This seems like naked self-interest - even working in a Russell Group university, I can see that. If the 'top' universities are more or less guaranteed 90 per cent of funding, that seems to be a recipe for complacency."

- "Professor Arthur is missing the point: we should be spending money to raise the standard of mediocrity, wherever we find it."

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