The archipelago of excellence

Joint research service launched to support work in 'islands' and challenge elite. Zoë Corbyn writes

February 25, 2010

"Pockets" of research excellence identified in teaching-focused universities have struck back against the lobby for greater concentration of funding among the research elite.

A scheme to bond the institutions together against their more established rivals is due to be announced this week, and has won more than £200,000 in seed funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

It will see more than 15 higher education institutions - many of which won research income for the first time on the strength of the 2008 research assessment exercise results - combine funding to create a joint support service for research.

The project aims to enable the pockets to share facilities, bid for research grants and develop staff together. A shared virtual graduate school is also planned.

Alice Hynes, chief executive of the Guild HE group of colleges and specialist institutions, which is leading the scheme, said: "It is the equivalent of a research office at a big research-intensive university. Rather than each institution running its own full set of arrangements, a lot can be done in common."

Although the only participants to have signed up so far are Guild HE members, the project is open to all institutions with pockets of excellence, Ms Hynes stressed.

Hefce is to provide £225,000 of funding over two years to get the project started, with the institutions involved expected to match this and then continue to fund the scheme alone.

The initiative is politically charged, as it is likely to be seen as a direct riposte to the research concentration lobby led by the Russell and 1994 groups of research-intensive universities.

Ms Hynes said the scheme was "fighting back against the idea that there isn't critical mass in any of our institutions ... It is providing a solution that doesn't require people to end up in the same kind of institution."

Hefce renamed the pockets of research excellence as "islands" following the RAE 2008 in an attempt to indicate that they needed to link with the "mainland" research-intensive universities.

Extending this metaphor, Ms Hynes said the scheme would link the islands to create an archipelago.

"These are islands that help each other and give each other strong mutual support," she said, adding that she hoped the project would result in members winning a greater share of research funding.

Hefce said the initiative would address the imperative for research collaboration identified in its 2009 grant letter and reiterated in the Government's recent Higher Ambitions strategy document.

It would also lead to greater efficiency in constrained economic times, a Hefce spokesman added.

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