It's clearly a place of excellence, but is it a pocket or an island?

March 12, 2009

When a large number of departments in teaching-led universities were discovered by the 2008 research assessment exercise to be producing world-class work, a new phrase quickly entered the higher education lexicon.

"Pockets of excellence" became a rallying cry for post-1992 universities keen to show that they could compete with the research elite. But a subtle rebranding of the "pockets" by the Higher Education Funding Council for England has raised eyebrows - and shown how politically sensitive the pockets have become.

Last week, David Eastwood, chief executive of Hefce, confirmed that the funding body's preferred metaphor for the departments was now "islands of excellence", because it imbued them with a greater sense of isolation.

The Government has made it clear that it does not expect the pockets to grow in the future, as finite resources will be concentrated on research-intensive institutions.

Professor Eastwood said that the new metaphor took Hefce towards the idea that the islands should collaborate with the traditional research powers, as the Government has stipulated. "You can connect (islands) to the mainland," he said.

But not everyone is happy with the new term. Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, which represents post-92 universities, said: "There are whole nations made of islands - or perhaps (Professor Eastwood) thinks the key to the UK's future prosperity is mainland France and the Eurotunnel?

"To promote collaboration on the back of historic presumptions about excellence, which have just been disproved by the RAE, seems odd and (not) likely to produce best value in terms of future UK investment in research."

• Research that scored the lowest grade in the 2008 research assessment exercise will be funded in Scotland.

The Scottish Funding Council announced last week that it will fund all research that is "nationally recognised" (1*) or above. The decision distinguishes Scotland from England and Wales, which are funding only research graded as "internationally recognised" (2*) or better.

Under the SFC formula, "world leading" (4*) research will receive eight times as much funding as 2* scholarship.

"Internationally excellent" (3*) research will receive 3.3 times as much as 2* scholarship, and work of 1* quality will receive one eighth of what 2* research receives.

"This both recognises the quality of 1* research and contributes to our support of early-career researchers and those returning after a career break," the SFC said in a statement. The allocations will be announced on 2 April.

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