Holey trinity that leaves gaps

June 20, 2003

Three is not a magic number for industrial research collaboration, says Deian Hopkin

Once again, Sir Derek Roberts, the outgoing provost of University College London, has set the cat among the pigeons ( THES , June 13). He has argued that three institutions could provide virtually all of London's needs in research and innovation. Why then, he asks, fund the plans of all the others? After all, why would industry want to join up with non-research intensive institutions?

Industry chooses to work with universities not because they contain 5*-rated research departments, but because they have the right kind of technical know-how and are accessible. Innovation is not just about research and discovery. It is also about ensuring that good ideas can be disseminated among small businesses as well as corporate giants and that those ideas are accessible to businesses everywhere. There are 366,400 VAT-registered companies in London and ten times as many nationwide. If only 1 per cent wanted advice, to develop a teaching company scheme (TCS) or undertake collaborative research, how would three institutions cope?

Sir Derek is a key player in the partnership between business and university and speaks as chairman of the London Development Agency's innovation steering group. This makes his remarks particularly surprising.

The London Technology Network, which he cited to bolster his case, has 19 partners, and his reported remarks are clearly at odds with the broad-based, multi-partner approach to economic development the LDA advocates.

If London needs only three institutions for this purpose, would the rest of Britain need only six or seven? That would nicely add up to Margaret Hodge's "Chinese Ten". And where might they be? Largely in the South of England with a modest concession to the Midlands, the Northwest and the Celtic nations?

Fortunately, the industries with which we deal have not paid much heed to the research assessment exercise. Neither our 30 TCS programmes and numerous spin-off companies, nor our technology partnerships with global companies such as BT and Rolls-Royce, have been affected. However, in the longer term we have to find ways of sustaining the research culture and infrastructure in the face of dwindling support from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. That is why third-leg funding, a reformed dual-support system and other proposals are so important.

If one gives credence to Sir Derek's analysis, serious questions need to be asked about the implications of an RAE designed to deal with the quality of subject-based research now being used as the basis for economic planning. I doubt if the panels considered the regional impact of their decisions, or examined in any detail the consequences for industry-university relations.

That was not their task, but the results of their deliberation are now constantly used to justify increased selectivity.

Selectivity can be damaging and pervasive. Is it a coincidence that the academic partners in the controversial new "Gate A" scheme for creaming off bright state-school children into hot-house academies are two of the institutions that, it is claimed, can also provide 90 per cent of London's research and innovation? Today research, tomorrow teaching. Where will it all stop? When the pool has been scooped? It is time, surely, for the pigeons to turn on the cat.

Deian Hopkin is vice-chancellor of South Bank University.

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