No cash, but we're not going to give up

February 14, 2003

Martin Ince reports on the new institutions battling to preserve their research.

Before last month's white paper on higher education, researchers might have thought that stratification was something that concerned the geology department only. Now the term has assumed wider importance as the code word for dividing the nation's universities between those with a full range of teaching and research and a potentially large group that has no research money and may not even have the right to award research degrees.

This could be a frightening prospect for the universities in the lower stratum. But the institutions in question have a head start in contemplating life without research money. Many have been producing research for years despite low levels of funding and are unlikely to stop because of any official edict.

Figures gathered by the Coalition of Modern Universities, the lobby group for new institutions formed in 1992, show that only 6 per cent of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's research cash goes to these universities. The percentage for the research councils is less.

Mark Cross, pro vice-chancellor of Greenwich University, said that one factor behind new universities' research output was hard work. Staff who had a full teaching load, he said, simply put in more hours if they wanted to do research as well.

He said that research was important because "we want our staff to be at the leading edge of their subjects and professions". Otherwise, "our undergraduate and postgraduate courses are not supported by an adequate intellectual challenge".

The university had an access mission that brought in many students from the local area, Professor Cross said. "It is our duty to make sure that they meet the best staff, which means staff who are combining research, professional practice and advanced consultancy."

He believed that the Department for Education and Skills misunderstood some basic points about how new universities operated. "Many of our courses carry professional accreditation, and the bodies that accredit them demand staff at the sharp end of the subject, including a proportion who are research active. So if we have no research funding, we risk losing this accreditation and the teaching that goes with it."

He said that Greenwich and other new universities were often successful in winning research funds from the European Commission, which does not distinguish between different categories of UK university. By contrast, Greenwich's ability to win funding-council money was hit by steadily rising expectations.

"After 1992, we had the motivation to professionalise our research and publish in better journals, which we did. But in the 2002 research assessment exercise, we found that work that would previously have been regarded as being of national standing was not judged to be good enough. It is fine for standards to rise, but we would have got four times as much out of the 2002 RAE under the 1992 algorithm."

Professor Cross said that despite these tribulations, one Greenwich researcher, Ian Bruce, was a principal European Union researcher in nanotechnology, and another, Ed Galea, had won the British Computer Society's prize for the best new piece of British software. Staff such as these, he said, had regional as well as national significance, and losing them would lead employers to question the quality of the university's graduates and of its research and consultancy.

At Staffordshire University, deputy vice-chancellor Paul Richards said that planning was taking place on the basis that the university's funding council cash for research, less than £1 million a year at the moment, would continue to decline. "We bring in about £2 million-£3 million in research money over and above that. It is vital for us to go on doing this work. And for students, seeing that staff are up to the minute with their subjects and engaged with research is a vital part of our offering."

Mr Richards said that Staffordshire's research "needs to be useful to a local partner or customer" such as a health authority, a development agency, an arm of local government, a company or a voluntary organisation.

For example, its cultural studies department, rated 4 in the RAE, has a flourishing industry in developing cultural strategy for the area.

Departments with no funding council money must be more careful in their approach to research.

Mr Richards said that they had to charge "at or above cost" for their research. "Our research office is very good at bid writing and encourages departments to attach a proper cost to what they are doing." But this had not prevented them building up handy niche markets for their research skill. The computing department was helping the regional development agency's approach to broadband telecommunications and working with small companies, he said. And the health school was active in evaluating health action zones and was working on issues such as perinatal mortality and teenage pregnancies.

He said: "It is engrained in the university's culture that people here want to bring their expertise to bear on real-world problems, and there are plenty of challenges in the Stoke area. And we like to know that the people our students meet here have solid contacts in the world they are about to enter."

Mr Richards added that initiatives such as the teaching company scheme, which funded academics to spend time in local businesses, had been important to Staffordshire, and the university was looking to build on them by setting up a local version with regional development agency cash.

Success in this arena meant that Staffordshire was producing work that was recognised as nationally significant with little funding council support.

The experience of Westminster University has demonstrated that even the high cost base of central London was not fatal to new university research - and nor was the proximity of more highly rated research teams at the University of London.

Len Shackleton, head of Westminster's Business School, said that in the absence of funding council cash, research was subsidised from the £3 million-£4 million of fees the school brought in from students on full-cost courses. Elsewhere in the university, there were departments with a 5 in the RAE that did not need such a cross-subsidy.

He said that the cash was used mainly to hire lecturers to free staff to do research, although it also paid for the equivalent of four full-time research fellows.

In addition, Professor Shackleton said, the school bid successfully for research council cash and for money from charities, the European Commission and elsewhere.

"I am very disappointed with the white paper because the notion that research happens only in premier-league universities is wrong," he said.

"In fact, researchers are very mobile, and this department has produced several who are now doing well elsewhere. If you stop research, this becomes a further education college, not a university."

Professor Shackleton pointed out that the power to award research degrees was one that was of far more than symbolic power to a university.

Withdrawing it, he said, would be a kick in the teeth for the people to whom new universities awarded such degrees over more than a decade.

"All our research degrees are awarded after consultations with external examiners, as with any university, and contain an original contribution to knowledge. Many people who have them now have jobs elsewhere in the academic system."

He added that "the big university model, with a group of students gathered around an internationally known professor and researching similar theses, is a good one but not the only option. We tend to have older students who may be part time and are researching a topic in which we happen to have one or two experts."

Professor Cross at Greenwich said: "Our PhD-awarding powers are already being removed by stealth because we will not be able to have research students in a department rated below 3a. But we think we can support students in a department below that level if the framework is there. Nobody here can supervise a PhD without appropriate experience."

There is also the argument that some new universities have very few PhD students in a particular subject, which might make for an impoverished intellectual environment. But Professor Cross argued that this happened across the university system, especially in new subjects that start small.

Only in new universities was it regarded as an issue, he said.

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