Cutting funding for departments rated 4 and under is sorely misguided and will stifle progress, says Rita Gardner
One matter that really irritates the government is academics' lack of public appreciation for increases in higher education spending.
This irritation seems understandable. The last spending settlement saw headline-figure increases in research and science spending of about 30 per cent in real terms. This should be applauded.
But more than £21 million has been deducted from departments in England judged in the research assessment exercise to have research of "national excellence in virtually all research activity". There has been a 43 per cent reduction in funding since 2001-02. A quarter of all research-active staff in the UK - 12,000 academics - work in departments that are threatened by this lack of funding.
The government has underestimated the contribution made by departments rated 4 and below. As the Royal Society outlined in its submission to the white paper consultation, significant scientific breakthroughs have occurred in departments that, at the start of the research, might not have received a high rating. Examples include research on liquid crystals at Hull University, DNA fingerprinting at Leicester University and magnetic resonance imaging at Nottingham University.
In my own discipline - geography - several of the 4-rated departments were given a special mention in the last research assessment exercise. Just one example is the Flood Hazard Research Centre at Middlesex University, which is working to improve policy-making and implementation in water management.
The strength of feeling on this issue has created consensus across groups and subject disciplines. An alliance of 16 learned societies and subject bodies, spanning the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences, has written to higher education minister Alan Johnson to argue against the moves towards further research funding selectivity.
But the consensus is wider than that: the Association of University Teachers, the British Medical Association, the National Union of Students, the Royal Society, Research Councils UK, and Universities UK have publicly expressed their concerns about increased research funding selectivity in their responses to the white paper. Before its inquiry into the white paper, the Commons education and skills select committee expected the main area of contention to be student fees and support. It seemed surprised by the level of controversy surrounding research selectivity and concentration.
This policy will harm the international standing of UK university-based research, which is essential for professional practice and training in many disciplines. For example, the Council of Heads of Medical Schools said that it would be "deleterious to medical education and research, the quality of the National Health Service workforce, and the delivery of patient care, if universities with medical schools were excluded from those institutions having access to significant research funds".
The government also clearly values the research conducted in sub-5 departments. It may come as some embarrassment to the Department for Education and Skills that more than half the research commissioned from universities that it published in the first half of this year was conducted by departments rated 4 and below. These departments assist national and local government evidence-based policy.
Research concentration has important regional implications at the very time when government is placing greater emphasis on regional autonomy and governance. According to the AUT, in some English regions less than half the assessed research has secure future funding. Other regions have no assessed research conducted in some subject areas. For example, there is no research into preclinical studies, anatomy or pharmacology in the Northeast, according to the AUT.
Pre-eminent departments must be strongly supported if they are to remain competitive internationally, but not if it means reducing the funding to other outstanding departments. We have the most concentrated research funding in the world. There is no evidence to support even further concentration. Centres of excellence and international scholars of the highest calibre are found in all regions, in departments both small and large. Over-concentration will stifle the development of our rich research base.
Rita Gardner is director, Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers). She also writes on behalf of: Academy of Social Sciences; Association of University Professors and Heads of French; British Computer Society; British Educational Research Association; British International Studies Association; British Philosophical Association; British Psychological Society; British Sociological Association; Philological Society; Political Studies Association; Royal Historical Society; Royal Statistical Society; Royal Society of Chemistry; Society for Italian Studies; and Standing Conference for the Arts and Social Sciences.