Model Cranfield caught in trap

April 2, 2004

Blue skies or blue chip - which way should research go? Claire Sanders reports

Cranfield University finds itself at the heart of an uncomfortable contradiction in government policy. It works with business, which is exactly what Gordon Brown, the chancellor, wants, yet it faces dwindling government funds.

When Richard Lambert produced his review of business-university collaboration in December, he was fulsome in his praise of the university.

"Cranfield is exactly the kind of institution that is a model of what I am proposing," he said. The quote is now proudly displayed in Cranfield's 2004 annual report.

Just a few months later, the university's grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England was cut by 9.3 per cent. It was the largest cut for any English university, and it was down to the university's poor research assessment exercise ratings.

In the 2001 RAE, none of Cranfield's departments scored above a 4. Last year the university, which is soon to become an entirely postgraduate institution, had an emergency handout of more than £3 million. This year, that financial moderation was cut to £990,000.

Frank Hartley, Cranfield's vice-chancellor, last month assembled five of his senior staff to explain why Cranfield was in this awkward position.

What researchers are keen to communicate, and what they feel they have not been doing well enough, is the sort of research they do.

Clifford Friend, deputy vice-chancellor, said: "We have had a number of post-Lambert discussions with bodies ranging from Hefce to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to the regional development agency.

What has become clear to us is that the field of business-related 'strategic' research is poorly understood but of key importance to the UK economy."

Neil McDougall, who joined Cranfield from industry as an academic technical director, said: "Such research is not long-term fundamental research as supported by government in universities through the dual-funding process.

Nor is it applied, with a zero to five years' time horizon, as supported in universities by government through its third-stream initiatives.

"Instead, it is a fourth stream, one that is currently significantly underfunded."

Professor Hartley said: "Strategic research has a timescale of three to ten years. It is directed towards a clear goal, taking ideas stemming from basic research to the point where they can be employed in specific applications.

"It is from such strategic research that most innovative products and services emerge. The UK is weak in this area."

Lambert recommends that between £100 million and £200 million be put into universities to prime such research. Cranfield is busy working to ensure that it will get its share.

"The RAE relies heavily on citations to measure research excellence. It has ignored measurements relating to a department's links to industry," Professor Hartley said.

He argues that a number of key factors should be taken into account when deciding who gets what. These should include the absolute scale of industrial income, the number and quality of industrial partners and the repeat business a university gets from these partners.

In 2002-03, Cranfield had a total income of £130 million, of which the £21.4 million Hefce grant made up 16.5 per cent.

It received £23.2 million from industry and commerce for research, with £4.6 million of this coming from outside the UK and the European Union. Research monies from Hefce, the research councils and charities and UK government departments came in at about £7 million each.

Professor Hartley said: "The reduction of Hefce money has to be seen in context of our overall income. We did not lose 9 per cent of our total budget, but the cut was nevertheless a serious blow because it makes it harder for us to draw in monies from business.

"Over and again, multinationals tell us that they invest with us only because we are the best. The minute we lose our competitive edge, they will be off."

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