Cutting off research's oxygen supply

October 4, 1996

Of the various proposals that are being floated before the Dearing committee the one to concentrate research funds on a small number of "elite" or premier league universities is the most wrong-headed yet. I use the word "wrong-headed" (one vice chancellor prefers the word "pernicious") notwithstanding the fact that its genesis is reported to be the Secretary of State, that Sir Ron is reported (THES, September 9) to be flirting with the proposal and that it is being very vigorously promoted by a small number of self-interested vice chancellors.

The basis of the proposal is that such concentration will provide the cure to Britain's alleged laggardly performance in internationally-rated research. It is wrong-headed on a number of counts. First it is unnecessary and second, if implemented it would be likely to lead, at best, to a marginal improvement in the performance of the elite group of universities at the cost of a huge reduction in performance of the majority. The latter would include most old universities and all new universities.

The proposal is unnecessary because a small number of universities already receive the lion's share of research funds. If you take the Higher Education Funding Council for England research budget (Pounds 638 million), the top 25 per cent of institutions receive 60 per cent of the total. If you then add in research funds from the research councils the top ten institutions receive 37 per cent of the total. At the individual level, there are some very substantial sums involved - around Pounds 90 million a year each for Oxford and Cambridge, Pounds 50 to Pounds 60 million for University College London, Imperial College, Edinburgh and Manchester. On top of this are funds from charities, industry and overseas.

The framing of this proposal at institutional level is misguided. Research takes place either within a cluster of staff or by individuals and at the departmental level. The top ten universities do not have a monopoly on all the best researchers and research groups. Under this proposal the research performance of some very good individuals and groups will suffer considerably.

The bulk of research expenditure is on staff - an estimate by HEFCE puts the figure as high as 75 per cent. To improve their own performance the elite group would either have to buy in the top researchers from universities outside the group, in which case there is no net gain in the performance of British research overall, or they would have to parachute in top foreign researchers. It is difficult to see how this enhances the quality of British research.

The alternative must be the hope that by giving existing researchers in the premier league more funds, the quality of their research would be transformed. Since these researchers are already receiving substantial funds, the effect of an increase is likely to be only marginal. In the meantime, the cost of this proposal to those universities outside the elite group who lose funds will be disproportionately large. There are some top researchers in the non-elite university group who will be hit immediately. This reduction in funding will also hit up and coming researchers particularly hard.

Proponents of greater concentration argue that membership of the elite group would not be fixed permanently but, over time, one or more of them might drop out to let in one or more outsiders. Such a view betrays a lack of understanding of the dynamics of the research process. Funding is the oxygen of research activity. Once funding is cut it would be very difficult for an individual or group to stand still. With fewer funds and less time available to devote to research, the quality of their research would tend to drift downwards in relation to the quality of the research taking place in the elite group.

This will happen more rapidly if the top researchers outside the premier group have to spend more of their time teaching and administrating, as is likely. So the non-elite universities will find it increasingly difficult to join the elite group.

The proposal is unprincipled because it seeks to replace a largely competitive model in which allocations are determined by peer review, by one which arbitrarily grants additional funds to those who already have. The research-strong universities are more than able to hold their own in the competitive model. The proposal is therefore obviously anti-egalitarian but in a wider sense than might first appear. There would, however, be a considerable effect on the students of the non-premier league institutions as well.

An active research culture attracts visiting lecturers and visiting professors, who give staff seminars as well as becoming involved in the research activity of the department. These all enhance the academic health of the institution. Such visiting academics are noticeably absent from non research-active departments. Students will, therefore, generally have a less stimulating environment.

The proposal for greater selectivity is reminiscent of a proposal floated by the then Department for Education and Science in the 1980s but with a vengeance. It seems that not only do old departmental policies not die, they do not even fade away gracefully. Let us hope that Sir Ron and his committee have the wisdom to kick this particularly misguided proposal into touch.

Frank Gould is vice chancellor of the University of East London.

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