It's time to feed fresh talent

Both the academy and society will benefit if pockets of excellence identified by the RAE are funded, says Alice Hynes

January 22, 2009

The higher education sector is holding its breath as the choices are made on how to distribute funding in light of the latest research assessment exercise results.

The decision will be tricky because every institution has something significant to gain or lose. The dilemma arises from the RAE having achieved its aim of finding research excellence wherever it is located. The weighing out of portions from this basket of "loaves and fishes" to feed the future will be watched intently. Funding council colleagues must be fair and transparent, and convince us that they have been so.

In financial terms, the stakes are highest for the handful of elite research-intensive universities that have benefited from receiving three quarters of quality-related research (QR) funding since the 2001 RAE. But in relative terms the teaching-led institutions have as much to play for, because the 2008 RAE results provided a compelling case for them to receive their fair share of QR.

Everyone has been surprised by the amount of world-class research being achieved across the sector. Large pockets of international excellence have been confirmed in some of the newest universities and specialist institutions.

As chief executive of the representative body GuildHE, of which many of these institutions are members, you would expect me to celebrate this achievement. I argue that where excellence is found, it should be rewarded. We should all be shouting more loudly about this recognition of UK research as a whole as a key plank of the nation's future in a post-recession knowledge-based economy.

It is unsurprising to find some research-intensive universities warning of dire consequences if QR funding is spread too thinly. The prevailing view is that the UK must maintain an elite core to protect its position as a world leader in higher education and as a knowledge-based economy. Few would argue against this leadership role, but when this point of view becomes too dominant, other vital considerations are set aside. In our digital age, this critical-mass argument is, in reality, compelling only when applied to work in some subjects in the sciences, engineering and mathematics.

The greatest danger is the implication that there should be a fixed club of elite research-intensive universities that are entitled to the lion's share of QR funding no matter how their departments perform.

The RAE results have shown that small amounts of research funding can have an impact, and that departments in some teaching-led institutions are capable of producing a very good return on investment. For example, 4* work has been found in the universities of Cumbria, Winchester and Worcester; in Bucks New, Glyndwr and York St John universities; and in Leeds Trinity and All Saints, Norwich University College of the Arts, the University for the Creative Arts, University College Falmouth and St Mary's University College. This must not be allowed to go to waste for the sake of propping up those that have achieved less with more, for there are strong economic arguments for rewarding and developing new areas.

First, a key strength of the UK sector is its diversity. To maintain a healthy academic community that will bring new ideas, we need to offer nourishment to the sector as a whole, rather than force-feeding the biggest fish in the pond.

Second, the UK's reputation for higher education is founded not only on research, but also on top-quality teaching. One of the reasons our teaching is so good is that it is underpinned by high-calibre research, even if small in quantity.

Without a reasonable spread of funding, we will narrow and weaken our base of excellent teaching institutions and get subnational standard research into the bargain.

Finally, having pockets of research excellence in a wide range of disciplines and institutions is good for the economy. Many small institutions have strong links with regional industry, bringing opportunities for the practical application of research findings.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England should be pleased that the RAE has provided evidence of high-quality research across the board. With so much at stake, it cannot now afford to ignore that evidence. GuildHE expects Hefce to do its duty.

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