College clans unite against the old enemy

August 5, 2005

Are Scotland's emerging cross-university groupings of researchers a revival of the Braveheart spirit? Roger McClure, chief executive of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, was only half-joking when he made the suggestion, writes Olga Wojtas.

"There's nothing like feeling threatened to get people together," Mr McClure said. "Whether it's feeling threatened in the 13th century by English kings or feeling threatened in the 21st century by English universities who want to cherry-pick your stars, the effect is largely the same."

Strong groupings between universities have emerged in physics and chemistry. Academics in these fields believe Scotland has the critical mass to be internationally competitive as England moves to more selective research funding.

There are three other funding council pilot projects: in biosciences, which has world-leading strengths in several areas, to see whether pooling would make it even stronger; in economics, whose research ratings have been lacklustre, to see whether it could improve in a larger, more coherent grouping; and in creative arts, where research is less developed and has proportionally fewer postgraduates.

Other disciplines are drawing up their own pooling proposals, but Mr McClure warned against this being seen as the way to unlock the funding council's coffers. It has taken physics and chemistry academics months to get formal approval for proposals, which went through rigorous council scrutiny, including international appraisal.

"We have to be convinced that this is an instrument for improving research and its attractiveness to researchers. It's not just a way of getting extra money," Mr McClure said.

"The fundamental concept underlying pooling was that we wanted to create in Scotland a distinctive viable alternative to what the best in England could offer. It's not the same as London, it's not the same as Oxbridge, but we (are trying to) elevate it to being perceived as one of the three options researchers must carefully weigh up."

At present, pooling is confined to research, but Mr McClure predicted that networking would expand further and in unforeseen ways under a single funding council that would promote a coherent lifelong learning system for the benefit of students, employers and Scotland in general.

The new Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act, which received Royal Assent in June, paves the way for the merger of Scotland's further and higher education funding councils.

"It's more than symbolic," Mr McClure said. "Removing one of the councils will change things in a way I don't think people have really appreciated yet. The perception will change, and I think we will see there is one system with a wide range of diverse institutions in it."

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