Time to free research elite from the grant 'treadmill'

UCL professors say 'major restructuring' will be needed to sustain UK sector. Paul Jump reports

August 5, 2010

The higher education sector should be reorganised into regional networks led by research-intensive universities freed from the "research-grant treadmill".

This is the argument made by David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, and Stephen Caddick, vice-provost for enterprise at UCL, in an article published on the Times Higher Education website.

They say that the coming cuts to the sector will necessitate "major restructuring" to preserve the global standing of the elite universities on which the success of UK higher education depends.

The elite, they propose, should pool and coordinate their research strengths to form hubs of about half a dozen regional "research clusters". Other universities would focus on delivering the early years of undergraduate courses plus taught master's degrees.

The professors say this structure should be supported by an increase in the proportion of funding that comes through the quality-related route, with research councils focusing solely on funding nationally strategic activities and facilities.

This, they say, would allow universities to make their own decisions about which projects to fund and would "eliminate the highly wasteful research-grant treadmill (now almost a lottery) in which researchers compete for funds rather than focusing on their research".

Professor Price added that such arrangements would also lead to a decline in the amount of funding for postdoctoral studentships, allowing elite universities to offer part-time research space to staff from other institutions.

"This would provide opportunities for the whole pool of UK academic labour to be involved with undergraduate teaching and research within a highly supportive environment, but without the wasteful duplication of capacity and dilution of research funding within a region," they say.

A spokesman for the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities said it strongly supported "the suggestion that public funding for doctoral research should be more concentrated towards those universities that offer the highest quality".

But Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of post-1992 universities, said high-quality research was distributed across the sector, with modern universities being "world leaders in ... emerging areas". She said the proposals would not be popular with students and ignored "the international research collaborations in which universities and academics ... are engaged".


- Read the opinion piece by clicking on the related link on the right-hand side of this webpage


The government has voiced support for concentrating funding in larger research groups.

In its response to a report by the previous Parliament's Commons Science and Technology Committee, The Impact of Spending Cuts on Science and Scientific Research, the government says: "In the face of international competition and in a world of finite resources, there appear to be strong arguments for supporting larger groups of researchers, especially in areas where researchers need to collaborate across disciplines."

The response declines to give details about science funding ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review, but says that the government recognises the importance of "a research base that has a positive impact on the UK economy and society". However, it also pledges continued funding for "excellent research without obvious or immediate impact".

The new Commons select committee has announced that its first inquiries will consider the role of the new UK Space Agency and the use of scientific evidence in emergencies.

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