Small is perfect for expertise

January 27, 1995

Should research funding be confined to a few large universities? A number of vice chancellors believe so. Derek Roberts, the provost of University College, says that the number of designated research universities should be as few as ten. The argument is that it will permit the development of centres of excellence and reduce wasteful duplication of effort.

This is often coupled with a claim that research excellence can only be fostered efficiently in large universities. Only they, it is argued, have sufficient resources to maintain high quality laboratories and archives, to purchase expensive equipment and to pay salaries high enough to attract top class staff.

Some 15 of the old universities are large institutions (student populations more than 11,000 full-time equivalents). Included are Oxford and Cambridge, and most of the big civics. They lobby as the Russell Group.

But there is a significant group of research excellent universities who claim the size argument is misleading. Lobbying as the 94 Group, they include 11 English universities (Bath, Durham, East Anglia, Essex, Exeter, Lancaster, Reading, Surrey, Sussex, Warwick and York) and two colleges of the University of London (LSE and Birkbeck) which, while of medium size have a very high research profile. In the 1992 Research Assessment Exercise 11 of the 94 Group appeared in the top 20 of research universities, outperforming many of the Russell Group (see table).

In common with the larger civics, they gain a high proportion (25-53 per cent) of their income from research, and a high proportion of their research active staff are in grade 4 and 5 departments (50-85 per cent). They also see themselves as research institutions in which there is a high degree of intellectual synergy between research and teaching. Postgraduate students constitute more than 20 per cent of FTEs in 94 Group institutions (range 21-42 per cent).

There appear to be several inter-related features of the 94 Group universities that have contributed to their success. Because of their relatively small size they have made a conscious effort to focus on certain areas of research expertise (17-40 units of assessment; most civics submit more than 40 units). By targeting resources and having a highly selective and attractive recruitment policy it has been possible to create groups of sufficient critical mass to compete on equal terms with similar groups in large universities. For example, there are very large and successful faculties of biological sciences at Sussex, of engineering at Surrey and Warwick, of economics at LSE and York, education at Exeter, agriculture at Reading, theology at Durham, and business at Warwick. Their size and their lack of complicated faculty and administrative structures facilitate innovation and permits them to respond rapidly to new opportunities.

Many of the 94 Group are also characterised by a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary research, facilitated by specific structures, such as schools of study (East Anglia's school of environmental sciences or Sussex's school of cognitive sciences), or collegiate systems such as at Durham, or the creation of interdisciplinary research centres (LSE has 25, Lancaster has 20, Warwick 48, Durham 30). As a result, the research output is often distinctive, not only in quality but in the way research topics are addressed.

One consequence is that the 94 Group has been active in seeking out particularly unusual and often unique research niches, with high national and international profiles. Examples include the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex, international research centres in neurosciences at Sussex, in global environmental change at East Anglia and in micro-social change at Essex. Birkbeck is distinguished by its protein crystallography group, Exeter by the Arab Gulf studies centre and the centre for complementary medicine, Surrey by its centre for satellite engineering research, Durham by research in astronomy and particle physics, York by its institute of railway studies, Lancaster by the Ruskin programme and centre for engineering and design, and Bath by the centre for drug formulation and the social services research and development unit.

A final distinctive feature is that most of the 94 Group universities are engaged in applied research with strong regional connections. Warwick has a world-renowned manufacturing group and a research park with 64 companies; Surrey has multi-million pound technology transfer companies associated with its research centres, and a multinational research park housing 70 companies; York has recently established a local bioscience consortium, including international research centres; East Anglia, with the Norwich research park has the largest concentration of biotechnologists in the UK and Sussex is creating an innovation centre (in collaboration with the University of Brighton and funded by the local authorities) for technology companies engaged in international research and development.

By any national or international standard these are clearly institutions of great value. They have demonstrated that high research quality, both pure and applied, can be generated in small to medium-sized universities and, indeed, in many respects their research excellence is a direct function of their ability to be flexible and innovative. In theory their distinctive research centres could be taken over by the big civics. But it is doubtful whether these often interdisciplinary research initiatives would necessarily flourish as readily in different organisational contexts and cultures.

At the Higher Education Funding Council for England headquarters there is currently much experimenting with research funding models in anticipation of the 1996 research assessment exercise. For the 94 Group the danger is that research funds will become increasingly limited to the big civics or dissipated among the new universities. It is in the national interest that any model must recognise and protect our 4, 5 and 5* rated subject groups.

Gordon Conway is vice chancellor of the University of Sussex.

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