Circling around the Dearing ring

July 19, 1996

The gradual clarification of Labour's ideas on English regional governance may well provide a context for at least some of the issues which the Dearing committee will need to address.

Having spent 25 of my 30 years in the university profession in a conurbation which has always been exceptionally well-endowed with higher education opportunities, I am particularly conscious of the benefits that collaboration can bring to institutions, to staff and to students alike, and how much an appropriate framework could further enhance these advantages.

When I first went to Salford it had only recently become a university, and I was very dependent for my research needs on the resources of its long-established neighbour, Manchester.

Of course, in those distant days, the purpose of research was to further scholarship and learning, rather than to gain some supposed competitive advantage for one's institution - I had nothing but support from the John Rylands Library. Recent rhetoric and the existence of a single funding model, have tended to obscure the fact that what happened 25 years ago was right; to have sought to build up a second research library in romance philology three miles away would have been both foolish and ultimately unsuccessful.

So we need a planning and funding model that encourages the allocation of resources to make the best use of the ever more limited cash at our disposal. In the great cities, which host four-fifths of our staff and students, the sharing of library and information services should be but a prelude to the joint planning of many other social or academic facilities. Sports facilities and teaching laboratories perhaps.

But all of this depends on a framework that encourages collaboration, and promotes or even requires institutions to assign their resources for the greater good of teaching and research.

The catch is to define what are the appropriate circumstances, and how such a system might work. I am only too conscious that there are countervailing pressures at work within the sector. First, it is not always easy to define regions, and not all institutions have neighbours. Second, some universities, particularly in the southeast, would not see themselves as having a regional role, even in addition to (let alone instead of) their national and international position as centres of excellence for research and teaching. Third, collaboration on the ground depends not just on financial carrots - a crucial part of a "regional" model - but on sufficient local goodwill and mutual understanding for it to work in practice.

But perhaps the most difficult issue is how a funding model, based in part on shared regional investments, would accommodate universities such as those that exist in all our great cities. Those which would claim, with justification, to have a national and international reputation in both teaching and research, that they are determined to maintain, but that also accept willingly their role within a set of regionally based institutions, with different and partly complementary missions.

If Labour's emergent English regional policy is to work for higher education, and if Dearing is to make recommendations on the funding of universities and colleges, which can both maintain excellence and continue to develop opportunities for the greatly expanded student body and those who teach it, this is one circle which has to be squared.

Martin Harris is vice chancellor of the University of Manchester.

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