Research elite risk losing stars

April 21, 2000

Top-rated research departments could lose their 5* grade if they fail to provide adequate research training, funding chiefs have warned.

Research funding would be explicitly linked to the quality of research training in departments under plans unveiled at last week's annual conference of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

One option would be for research training to be assessed within the research assessment exercise. Alternatively, a separate funding stream could channel cash into universities that offer excellent training.

A Hefce consultation found "considerable support for the view that the quality of research training should have more influence on the distribution of funding".

The research councils are also looking at how they might best support research training in universities.

The proposal has won support from the Association of University Teachers. A spokeswoman said: "We share the funding council's concern at the failure of some departments to fulfil their training responsibilities, not only for doctoral students but also for contract research staff. We support any sensible steps to encourage these departments to take training seriously. The standards on which people will be judged will have to be subject to wide consultation."

A survey conducted by the AUT has found that many universities are flouting the concordat on research careers produced by the funding councils, vice-chancellors and employers.

Richard Brook, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, said: "Research training is emerging as a serious issue."

At least one research council penalises departments in which students take longer than average to complete a PhD by awarding them fewer places in future years. Similar penalties could also be attached to departments that fail to provide adequate research training.

The Hefce consultation revealed "considerable support from all quarters for the concentration of research training". The options included forming partnerships between institutions, which would share a graduate school, and supporting the development of national and regional centres.

The funding council's proposals on research training emerged from the fundamental review of research, which is due to conclude later this year. A new sub-group was recently established to examine issues connected with research students and staff.

The funding council is also taking an interest in staff development higher up the academic scale. Speaking at last week's conference, the chief executive of Hefce, Sir Brian Fender, appeared to advocate performance-related pay. He said: "Human resources management in higher education needs annual individual performance reviews with appropriate rewards."

Measures to address difficulties in recruitment and retention should recognise market pressures, he added.

In the past, government has steered away from dictating how universities should reward their staff.

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