While Wales considers a new fees structure, demoralised staff and insufficient income are stalling progress at the country's universities, reports Tony Tysome
Researchers in Wales must join forces with colleagues in other Welsh institutions if they are to compete effectively for research money, says a new report.
The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales report, published this month, says that if Welsh institutions do not secure "credible" levels of research income from external sources the research base will suffer.
This will affect both the reputation of research in Wales and the level of activity that could be undertaken, it says.
Funding council officials are concerned that Wales continues to underperform at winning research income.
Even though the council is more generous than its English counterpart, Welsh institutions received a 4 per cent share of research income in the UK in 2003-04 - 1 percentage point below the level expected for the size of the sector.
In an effort to improve this performance, the funding council has set a target to increase Welsh institutions' share of the total research council pot from 3.5 per cent to 4.5 per cent by 2010.
Phil Gummett, Hefcw chief executive, said the target was unlikely to be achieved unless researchers in Wales became involved in the Welsh Assembly's reconfiguration and collaboration agenda for the sector.
Professor Gummett said this meant that researchers and their departments must create "substantial, structural and sustainable" partnerships between institutions to allow small research groups to combine to give them greater impact and improve their prospects when bidding for big grants, he said.
Some collaborative networks are already being created, for example in neuroscience, health research and energy.
But Professor Gummett said he wanted to see more evidence of sustainable links, with departments in different institutions funding joint appointments as well as sharing facilities and equipment, forming joint research strategies and making joint bids for grants.
He said: "To win these large grants you have to offer a wide range of intellectual resources, so small institutions are inevitably at a disadvantage. Collaboration shifts the game and will enable more ambitious proposals to emerge."
Between them, the funding council and the Assembly have been using a carrot-and-stick approach to encourage collaboration.
The council has a £12 million reconfiguration and collaboration budget to encourage partnerships. Meanwhile, the Assembly threatened to withhold expansion money from the sector unless it saw evidence of progress.
Some researchers feel that they were being pushed into artificial alliances for the sake of meeting political goals and funding requirements.
They have pointed out the practical difficulties of sharing staff between institutions that are scattered around the country and have raised concerns about how institutions would decide who should take credit for shared researchers' achievements in the next research assessment exercise.
There have also been worries that successful collaboration could mean job losses as well as gains, as institutions restructure their provision.
But Professor Gummett suggested that any changes would be gradual and did not necessarily mean redundancies.
"As time passes, the institutions involved may become more interdependent," he said.
"As a result, the institutions might reshape their provision. As staff leave, they might make appointments to take them in different directions.
"The funding council might pump prime some of those new posts. Hopefully, at the end of the process there will be something established that will not fall apart easily," he added.