Concentrating research funding would be a "disaster" for the emerging field of media studies, subject leaders told The THES this week.
The Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Association warned that plans to focus money in a handful of top-performing departments could "massively damage" a field that has been establishing itself as an international force. Young researchers with great potential in emerging departments would be cut down in their prime, they warned.
Peter Golding, head of the 5*-rated department of social sciences at Loughborough University and honorary president of MeCCSA, said: "In a field that is massively important and popular, and central to the UK's economic future, it would be a disaster to reduce research opportunities when so much of the very best work is undertaken in diverse, often small groups, frequently in universities outside the so-called top research institutions."
Professor Golding, a member of the media and communication studies panel for the 2001 research assessment exercise panel, added: "The field is too strong and well established to regard its very existence as under threat, but the research infrastructure that forms its heart most certainly will be massively damaged by this unnecessary and punitive concentration of resources."
Many departments doing work of national significance will have research funding cut off under plans confirmed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Of the 38 departments that entered the RAE, two received 5* and six received a 5. Some 23 departments received either a 3a, 3b or 4, meaning they will not be funded by Hefce.
John Corner, professor of media at Liverpool University, said: "There is a quite barmy drive to extreme selectivity in the belief that some value for money will result. What will result is the undermining of intellectual culture across the national university system and a probable loss of variety and vigour as research becomes unduly concentrated in a very few institutions.
"Research into media and communication will be particularly badly hit because a lot of it is going on in new universities, where overall departmental and institutional ratings may now slip below the cut-off zone, whatever the quality of specific work."
Justin Lewis, deputy head of the 5-rated journalism and media studies department at Cardiff University, said: "An awful lot of departments will become teaching institutions, which is not a good thing. Good researchers will be increasingly isolated, and it will be difficult for them to continue to pursue any research if they have to do more teaching."
The media studies leaders say alternative sources of funding are more limited than in other subjects. The media industry is notoriously bad at working with universities: focusing on commercial considerations and asking questions academics are not well placed to answer.
Christine Geraghty, head of the department of theatre, film and TV studies at Glasgow University and chair of MeCCSA, said: "While support from the media sector is welcome in many circumstances, research into the huge corporations of the global media needs to be independent.
"We seek to foster good relationships between academics and those working in the media industries, but a combination of vocational-driven degrees and industry-dominated research would be a severe setback to what has been a success story."
The subject also struggles to win funding from the research councils as it falls between social sciences, arts and humanities. "Excellent work can and is carried out in a wide variety of situations, crossing the disciplinary boundaries of arts, humanities and social sciences, with the development of media practice as research offering exciting possibilities," Professor Geraghty said.