No appetite to line up pockets of excellence with elite

Future of the beleaguered agenda now depends on Lord Mandelson. Zoe Corbyn reports

June 25, 2009

The push for greater collaboration between "pockets of excellence" and larger research-intensive institutions is in abeyance, with little appetite for it in the sector.

One commentator claimed the agenda had "fallen off the edge of a cliff", while the Higher Education Funding Council for England said it was waiting for further advice before proceeding with the strategy launched by John Denham, the former Universities Secretary, before the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was scrapped.

Pockets of research excellence in teaching-focused universities were identified by last year's research assessment exercise.

However, amid concern that a dilution of research funding could affect the UK's competitiveness, Mr Denham instructed Hefce to "explore ways to encourage collaboration between institutions with the largest volumes of world-class research and those with smaller pockets of excellence".

This prompted Hefce to rebrand the pockets as "islands of excellence", isolating them from the "mainland" of research-led institutions. Since then there has been little progress, a go-slow compounded by the lack of enthusiasm from universities on both sides.

Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group of smaller research-led universities, said the agenda had "fallen off the edge of a cliff", while Dinos Arcoumanis, deputy vice-chancellor for research at City University, added that Hefce "does not seem to have the appetite and resources (for it) in the present financial climate".

Privately, institutions with pockets of excellence are said to be concerned that collaboration could undermine their research success, while the research elite appear to believe that they can always poach the best researchers if they so wish.

The sector seems to be united in the view that forced collaboration will not work.

"Research collaborations ... must be driven by institutions and their academic staff, primarily in a bottom-up process," Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group of larger research universities, said.

"Any attempt to help create conditions supportive of collaborative interaction would be welcomed, but we would counsel against a direct top-down approach."

Mr Marshall said: "Natural collaborations are happening, but I would be quite reluctant to say university x must collaborate with university y because it just so happens that they have got a pocket of excellence down the road."

If the agenda made a comeback, Professor Arcoumanis predicted that the most likely outcome would be greater inter-pocket collaboration rather than between the pockets and the research elite.

"I don't see enthusiasm for releasing groups to stronger research institutions. It would be the wrong signal for morale," he said.

Hefce's options range from tweaking the forthcoming research excellence framework to providing strategic development funding. However, everything appears to be on hold pending the publication of the higher education framework, due in July, and feedback on whether Mr Denham's strategy is favoured by Lord Mandelson, who is now responsible for universities.

David Sweeney, head of research at Hefce, said the funding council would consider whether to take a more active role in encouraging structural collaborations, "taking account of any further government advice".

He added: "Do I think it is off the agenda? Definitely not. Is it more firmly in focus? When the framework comes out, it may be."

Speaking last week in London, Charles Clarke, the former Education Secretary, said universities had not achieved "anything like" the level of research collaboration he expected following the 2003 higher education White Paper.

Calling for "more organic" collaboration, he said: "There is still too much of a silo approach in too many universities ... some are not ready to share and work together when it is the absolute core of genius."

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.