Cuts clip wings of high-flier scheme

May 9, 1997

Northern Ireland can't keep its students. The THES looks at the troubled province in its latest regional spotlight

The province's two universities are in the forefront of the last Government's initiative to boost industry with the help of high-flier graduates supervised by academics.

They cooperate on project proposals and see the scheme as an excellent means of technology transfer. But they fear it is being undermined by the insistence that they concentrate on small companies, which cannot generate substantial academic research projects. Continuing staff support is uncertain if there is no potential recognition in terms of the research assessment exercise.

Both universities were delighted by their improved RAE ratings, but warn that these are threatened by plans to axe Pounds 16 million in research funds over the next three years to boost the law and order budget. They calculate that for every Pounds 1 lost from public funds, they will lose a further Pounds 1.30 in external support.

The universities provide almost all of Northern Ireland's research base. The economy is dominated by small firms that cannot afford to invest in basic or applied research, and there is a dearth of companies with large research laboratories.

Ulster University's vice chancellor, Sir Trevor Smith, has condemned the cut as "the height of folly" given the universities' role not only in helping existing industry and commerce but in attracting inward investment. The American multinational Seagate, for example, has said it located in the province because of the high-calibre academic research.

"I strongly feel the rigour of the RAE has encouraged us to manage our research much more effectively," says Gerry McKenna, dean of Ulster's science faculty. "It's extremely shortsighted that an investment which has paid off so handsomely should be curtailed."

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