'Threat' to research careers

March 17, 2006

Career opportunities for talented young academics are under threat as cash for research becomes concentrated in fewer university departments, Salford University's vice-chancellor Michael Harloe warned Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell this week.

The "supply chain" of rising academic stars between middle-ranking institutions such as Salford and elite research institutions may be cut off as more departments are starved of resources by increasing selectivity in research funding, Professor Harloe said.

Mr Rammell, who was visiting Salford as part of a British Council tour of enterprising universities, was told that further selectivity could prove "disastrous" for the whole sector.

Professor Harloe said: "If selectivity in research funding is increased, it would not only be extremely damaging to a university such as ours, but it would also be a disaster for the elite universities, because we act as an important part of the academic supply chain to them."

Selectivity also threatens to "squeeze innovation out of the system"

including embryonic research that could spawn the top research rated departments of the future. He cited as an example Salford's top-rated built environment department, which received a low rating in the first research assessment exercise in 1986. Professor Harloe said: "Under the current regime it would have been cut off without a penny and would probably have fallen flat on its face."

Allocations by the Higher Education Funding Council for England this month revealed that Cambridge, Oxford and Manchester universities, University College London and Imperial College London alone attracted just under 30 per cent of the total research funding of £1.3 billion for the sector in 2006-07.

Salford had some high-ranking research departments but also substantial widening participation and enterprise activities, offering academics a wide variety of career avenues, according to Professor Harloe.

He added: "One of the things that happens in a university such as ours is that if you are research active you get extra time and support, whereas in the intensely competitive atmosphere of a Russell Group university it can be a very tough environment where young researchers are left to sink or swim."

He said that Salford has been used as a hunting ground by other institutions seeking to poach research stars in the run-up to the 2008 RAE.

But it was part of Salford's "function" to take in and develop young academics who may move on to elite institutions, he added.

"I genuinely believe that if we end up with more selectivity this will be lost, and our successors will say we destroyed a world-class research system," he said.

A Hefce spokesman said: "Hefce does not have a policy to concentrate research funding in a few universities. Our policy is to fund research selectively based on excellence wherever it might be found.  "With limited resources we prioritise our funding for the most highly rated departments. Indeed, more than 70 universities have at least one 5*-rated department. This leads to some 75 per cent of the research funding going to 25 universities. This compares with someJ84 per cent of Research Council funding going to 25 universities."

tony.tysome@thes.co.uk

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