Poachers eye rich pickings amid the RAE's pockets of excellence

Research stars at teaching-led universities may be headhunted by the elite, writes Zoë Corbyn

February 12, 2009

Modern teaching-led universities are likely to face a battle to retain their research stars as recruitment activity picks up in the wake of the research assessment exercise.

By providing a "research profile" of every university research department, the 2008 RAE highlighted so-called pockets of excellence in research outside the traditional elite.

But vice-chancellors have predicted that the world-class research teams found in teaching-led institutions are likely to fall prey to "poaching" by research-intensive institutions.

"'Nasty elite universities hoovering up all these pockets of excellence' is a harsh way of looking at it ... but it is the same effect," said Brian Cantor, vice-chancellor of the University of York.

"The reality is the recruitment market will get going again after a brief slowdown ... and there will be a tendency for some of those high-quality performers across the whole sector to gravitate over the next year or two towards the top research-intensive universities."

He said that to a "fair extent" it would be the "perfectly reasonable practice of people seeking to improve their career" that led to such movement. But he also said the deliberate targeting of research stars was to be expected.

"It might be partly because some universities go around finding these guys and waving money at them," Professor Cantor said.

His sentiments were echoed by Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, who said that as a result of the RAE, bigger departments would "be able to direct their recruitment processes in a more targeted way".

"Where there are more junior members of staff sitting in units that are truly excellent, inevitably they will be made offers by more established, larger institutions," Professor Wellings said.

But he questioned the speed at which headhunting would occur, given the economic downturn.

"It would be an act of madness for a university to rush in, poach a pile of people and then discover that its budget was imploding."

Professor Wellings added that he expected to see larger institutions focus on how to work collaboratively with pockets of excellence in teaching-led institutions.

This follows recent signals made by the Government's and by the Higher Education Funding Council for England's guidance on the sector's funding for 2009-10. Both sets of guidance emphasise the importance of collaboration, mooting it as a way to ameliorate the expected leakage of funding from research-intensive universities to teaching-led ones.

In light of this pressure from above, the RAE "helps us to know who to collaborate with", Professor Cantor said.

As tantalising as the prospect of being poached may be for some star researchers, what may be of more immediate concern to ordinary academics are the department-by- department reviews that their universities are beginning to undertake, based on the RAE results.

"I imagine that all universities will already have started a process of looking at their departments," said Professor Cantor, who added that York had already done so.

He said that he expected that administrations would also be hard at work thinking about how to divide their block grants.

Professor Cantor predicted that most would seek to ensure that they work between the two extremes of mechanistically returning money to the departments that won the funding, which risks leaving nothing for strategic development, and hoarding the funding centrally, with the danger of leaving the best departments feeling disenfranchised.

"Both extremes have serious problems, so most universities do something in the middle," Professor Cantor said.


'It is always a risk when you have high-quality staff'

Imelda Whelehan is not expecting to lose any staff from her "pocket of excellence" to a research-intensive university.

"That is always a risk when you have high-quality staff ... but I don't see it happening. I think we have set up an environment where they can get on with their work," she said.

Professor Whelehan's "pocket" is the department of English and creative writing at De Montfort University. It is one of a number of departments that helped De Montfort rise from 67th to 63rd in the Times Higher Education Table of Excellence.

The department achieved the fourth-highest grade-point average in the RAE's English language and literature unit, with 40 per cent of research activity rated "world leading" (4*).

This puts it on a par with the University of Cambridge, although Cambridge submitted 70 academics to the RAE compared with De Montfort's 20.

Professor Whelehan, head of research in the faculty of humanities, was one of the team that put together the submission, which was four years in the making.

She said: "The university is very supportive of research, but it doesn't have the infrastructure that Cambridge has."

The secret to the department's success, she said, has been to give staff the same kind of conditions that a more traditional university might provide, including sabbaticals, earmarked research days and lots of research seminars.

"We all teach ... but our staff have nice timetables. They're not teaching themselves to death," she said.

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