The new academic vampirism

March 28, 1997

There is a great deal of talk about how the formation of research centres and networks, on a regional basis, can solve the sensitive problem of allocation of research funding in British universities. Support comes from such influential figures as Martin Harris, the new chair of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, Janet Lewis, the research director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and, reportedly, from the research working group for the Dearing inquiry.

Collaborative research projects are being touted as the way for ambitious but impoverished universities to avoid further financial squeeze. The surprise transformation of former DevR funds into money set aside for collaborative projects only is hidden away in the Higher Education Funding Council for England's new non-formula funding allocations (THES, February 28).

Underneath the sensational public debate about the creation of a "superleague" of elite universities, quieter campaigning for regional distribution of research funding points to another way to concentrate academic power in the hands of the few. Aside from snatching back research funding from institutions which have only recently received any, and undermining many of those who have, this is supposed to result in great economies.

While this idea may be the only possibility in some areas of universities' work - "big science" with its peculiarly intense demands for expensive equipment is the obvious case in point - in almost all other areas the notion of a regional research basis is alarming. It is a stealthy attempt to establish a superleague by roundabout means. Again, the British affliction of creating impermeable hierarchies, whenever possible, lies behind its implicit threat to reinstate a binary line between those institutions that are selected as homes for regional research bases and those which are not.

One unexamined assumption is the unacceptable proposition that teaching and research in higher education are separable activities. They are not. They inform one another and provide the dual base on which university education rests. This link is what makes higher education something different from education at other levels. This is a factor usually overlooked in many discussions and affects such issues as the location of the first two years of degree-level work in further education colleges as well as the place of the region in research. The knock-on effects of research regionalism do not just affect research, they affect the standards of teaching that the majority of students in British universities receive. And if the idea is that a minority of universities would be research centres most students will study in institutions where the crucial link between research and teaching is severed.

The first effect of a regional research policy would be to marginalise any institution which is not designated as a centre in the new configuration. Not only would the intellectual ambition of such institutions be stifled, their libraries, archives, laboratories and workshops would be starved of the cash diverted to the regional research centre as the new academic funding vampirism took hold. The impact on students would be immediate, especially those studying in areas like the arts and social sciences. Proximity to resources for scholarship and research would be limited to the few while the many would have to make do with ever more unacceptably scarce and out-of-date provision.

More fundamentally, the idea of the region as the main organising principle for research is unrealistic. Research is national and international in scope, increasingly so. Thinking of research in regional terms now not only undermines the international ambitions of UK academics but ignores the essential internationalism of the academic community. That the blanket policy imperatives of making savings should drive down intellectual ambition for most academics is short-sighted and inattentive tothe conditions of contemporary research.

Geoffrey Channon, dean

Kate Fullbrook,associate dean for academic affairs of the faculty of humanities, University of the West of England

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