Coalition’s silence on postgraduate questions ‘deafening'

The vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge has offered a robust defence of research as “inherent to the very fibre of a university” and bemoaned the “deafening” silence from government over persistent concerns about postgraduate funding.

October 26, 2011

Far from being restricted to ‘blue-skies’ research, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz said, “today’s Thomas Edisons, Niels Bohrs and Louis Pasteurs are equally welcome” at Cambridge.

The former chief executive of the Medical Research Council made the remarks in a lecture entitled “Putting research back at the heart of the system” at the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities last night.

The event was part of a 10th-anniversary lecture series on “The Idea of the University”.

Sir Leszek said: “Our contribution to global society goes far beyond the mere economic and far beyond the short term: so, as we make that contribution, we should insist that it is valued appropriately…I find the silence of current government policy towards the postgraduate and postdoctoral community that are so vital to the life and being of a university deafening.”

In assessing the “impact” of research, continued Sir Leszek, it was essential to take account of differences between disciplines and relevant timescales.

“Humanised monoclonal antibodies were invented in Cambridge research laboratories,” he pointed out, “and 30 per cent of the pharmaceutical drugs now under development rely on that technology”.

Yet it was equally important to value the work of the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics in “bringing the latest linguistic research into the classroom to help parents and teachers nurture the gift of bilingualism”.

It was partly through trying to compare such different things that the Higher Education Funding Council for England had “invented a complicated, counter-intuitive, and in some ways contradictory concept of ‘impact’”.

Yet a big part of the problem, he suggested, was linguistic, since “Hefce does not mean ‘impact’ in the same way that the rest of the English-speaking world does.

“The frustration of [the research excellence framework] is that it requires distinguished intellectuals – people whose job and passion is language and how it is used – to comprehend phrases like ‘expert research user’ and ‘impact sub-profile’…If official guidelines are written in such opaque terms, guaranteed to provoke antibodies in the academics affected by them, then I am not surprised that explaining Hefce’s meaning of terms proved ‘non-trivial’.

“But if Hefce’s promises come to fruition, then ‘socio-economic impact’, rather than ‘economic impact’, comes much closer to my idea of the utility of the arts and humanities research – that is, what real human beings would consider the ‘impact’ of such research on the generality of humankind.”

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Monster behind man at desk

Despite all that’s been done to improve doctoral study, horror stories keep coming. Here three students relate PhD nightmares while two academics advise on how to ensure a successful supervision

opinion illustration

Eliminating cheating services, even if it were possible, would do nothing to address students’ and universities’ lack of interest in learning, says Stuart Macdonald

Female professor

New data show proportion of professors who are women has declined at some institutions

Sir Christopher Snowden, former Universities UK president, attacks ratings in wake of Southampton’s bronze award

Reflection of man in cracked mirror

To defend the values of reason from political attack we need to be more discriminating about the claims made in its name, says John Hendry