Coalition rallies for fight

September 5, 2003

Sixteen learned societies made a joint appeal to the government this week to reverse its plans for greater research selectivity.

The initiative, in a letter to higher education minister Alan Johnson, came as an unprecedented array of organisations lined up to attack moves to steer some universities away from research.

Vice-chancellors, trade unions and students are united in opposing the plans. They have been joined by opposition political parties and the Commons select committee on education and skills.

The government's proposals were first aired in January's white paper and, despite widespread criticism, were restated in response to consultation on the paper.

In the past fortnight, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has issued its proposals for funding teaching and research. It plans to introduce a premium for foundation degrees, which could ultimately shift resources away from traditional degrees.

The funding council also confirmed that cash for departments rated 4 - where almost all the research is nationally excellent - will dry up over time as inflation erodes the grant. A quarter of all research-active staff work in such departments.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "Universities UK cannot understand the assertion in the white paper that the link between teaching and research is indirect. All higher education institutions benefit from the vital interdependence of teaching and research, and to lose this is potentially damaging to students and the sector as a whole."

On the concentration of research, she said: "Research funding is already more concentrated in the UK than the US. We believe more concentration risks damaging the research base, removing the ladder of improvement and may threaten vital disciplines such as engineering and medicine."

Michael Driscoll, chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities and vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, said: "We believe that teaching and research go together. If the government believes there are no benefits in having teaching and research take place in the same place, why have them in universities at all? Why not set up national research centres where staff are not distracted by teaching?"

In The THES today, Rita Gardner, director of the Royal Geographical Society, representing the 16 learned societies, states: "Centres of excellence and international scholars of the highest calibre are found across the sector and in all regions, in departments small and large.

Over-concentration will stifle growth and development across the rich and varied research base that we possess."

Concerns were also expressed by Barry Sheerman, the Labour MP who chairs the Commons select committee on education and skills, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the Standing Conference of Principals, the Association of University Teachers and the National Union of Students.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "We are not concentrating funding in a few institutions next year: 96 institutions will have one or more departments rated 5 or 5*, and they are spread across the country. Some 43 different institutions will receive at least £5 million each for research.

"We do not underestimate the importance of the research that takes place in lower-rated departments. Some proposals in the Roberts review of research assessment address this.

"There will never be enough public money to fund everyone to do the research they want to do. We need to focus public funding on high-quality research that is at the international cutting edge."

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