New title holders face tough decisions

August 5, 2005

To do research or not to do research: that is the question facing the country's six newest universities.

Chester University, Canterbury Christ Church University, Liverpool Hope University, Southampton Solent University, Winchester University and University College Northampton (which is still consulting on the name University of Northampton) are basking in the glory of their new university titles.

Their first big task is to map out the academic direction they will take. One of the toughest decisions the six universities must make is whether to develop research activities. This could lead them to the heady heights now enjoyed by institutions such as Warwick and York universities, which 30 years ago were in a similar position.

Only one of the six - University College Northampton - has research degree-awarding powers, having gained its status via criteria set out in 1999. The five others, which acquired their titles under rules introduced in last year's Higher Education Act, are considering whether to aim for the research degree-awarding powers needed to award PhDs, a basic requirement for an academic institution that wants to conduct research as well as teach.

All six are pondering a long-term future that could improve their positions in the race for ratings in the research assessment exercise. The alternative is to continue in a teaching-led mould that could see them develop along the lines of US liberal arts institutions.

Paul Light, vice-chancellor of Winchester, said: "The choice that faces us in terms of research and knowledge transfer is not so much whether we want to do it as whether we want to make more of a commitment in relation to the RAE or, in a broader way, to encompass more staff."

Tony Grayson, secretary and registrar of Liverpool Hope, which plans to significantly increase its number of taught and research postgraduate students, said: "The idea of not doing research is just not on. We may never be in the top ten of the RAE, but we have ambitions to grow that are not unrealistic.

"The Warwicks and the Yorks are a good example of how institutions can evolve. It would be nice to think that, in 20 or 30 years, people might find from this bunch of new universities at least one or two that have gained a similar reputational boost."

But Roger Brown, vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent, suggested that such aspirations could prove unrealistic.

"The higher education world has changed," he said. "I do not see any way that research funding will become less selective. As long as that is the case, I cannot see how institutions such as ours can progress in that way."

But the new universities will be well placed to fill strong demand for places at high-quality teaching-led institutions, he added.

"Every new university has got there because it has responded to demands that existing institutions have not met. You need to keep having new waves of universities because existing ones tend to pull up the drawbridge," he said.

As The Times Higher went to press, three more institutions - Bath Spa University College, University College Chichester and University College Worcester - were waiting for news on their bids for university status.

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