Learn, earn and turn round areas

November 26, 1999

Tony Tysome ("Great idea, but what's in it for us?", THES, November 19) highlights the lack of financial incentive for universities to participate in the regional development agencies springing up across the country. To some extent this could be overcome by a reformulation of the Higher Education Funding Council for England resource distribution mechanism. Perhaps more worrying are the intangible disincentives for involvement, particularly for the elite institutions within each region.

HE and FE institutions in some areas have responded to the RDA initiative by setting up their own regional associations, with the aims of coordinating their response to their local RDA and collaborating on joint projects. But it is unrealistic to expect a leading university to devote resources to the benefit of other institutions simply because they are neighbours. The elite have gained their status through years of cut-throat competition, not just for money but for eminence. Furthermore, academic networks are international, formed between peer groups of comparable status with shared research interests, and, since they are conducted electronically, a colleague at the opposite end of the country may feel closer than one in a college down the road.

Another difficulty lies in the potentially conflicting interests of the business and academic communities. There is a commercial view that the purpose of publicly funded education is to produce graduates who match the precise needs of employers, and one suggested function of RDAs is to encourage employers to liaise with universities so courses can be tailored more closely to their needs. This is at odds with the academic perception of the purpose of education, which has more to do with broadening the mind and learning how to learn - an ability that may turn out to be of more value in a rapidly changing work environment than a closely defined set of skills.

The primary purpose of regional development in the UK is to relieve pressure on the Southeast by diverting people and business activity to less populous regions. HE and FE institutions in those regions have evolved to meet the needs of their existing stakeholders. There are undoubtedly potential benefits for them in the economic development of their regions, but they are entitled to resist pressures that might threaten their individual missions.

Anna Whelan Planning officer, Imperial College, London

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