Universities need more collaboration, less competition

David Willetts calls for academics to work together during a debate on the REF and the state of higher education

December 11, 2014

Source: Getty

Unnerved: one professor claimed that most scholars were ‘terrified’ of the REF

The UK’s research bodies should “ease up” on promoting competition between academics in favour of encouraging collaboration between disciplines and institutions.

That is the view of David Willetts, the former universities and science minister, who said that although the system of assessing research excellence had, over the past 20 years, delivered the most productive system in the West, it had also resulted in a “highly atomised” academic environment that was the “most competitive” of all Western countries.

Speaking at a debate organised by academic publisher Sage on 8 December titled “The REF and the state of higher education today”, Mr Willetts suggested that now may be the time to give greater recognition to collaboration.

“I would like a research agenda slightly easing up on atomising competition and slightly focusing more on how we reward people from different disciplines and institutions working together,” the MP said.

Rodney Livingstone, emeritus professor of German studies at the University of Southampton, said that most academics were “terrified” about the research excellence framework results, which will be published on 18 December.

Derek Sayer, professor of cultural history at Lancaster University, agreed. “I think that fear is integral to the way that British universities work and I think the REF is the key instrument of that,” he said.

Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literary studies at the University of Warwick, argued that the effect of the REF was to “control or limit” thought, promoting safe research that offers swift returns.

But David Sweeney, who oversees the REF as the director of research, education and knowledge exchange at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said academics could not “live in a fantasy world” where assessment of performance was unnecessary.

He accepted that there might be a better way of doing it, but emphasised that it was in the hands of lecturers to shape this.

Several speakers debated a potential role for metrics in either replacing the REF or making it less burdensome on universities. Hefce is currently carrying out an independent review on the role of metrics in research assessment.

Mr Willetts said: “If this whole exercise can identify ways of spending so much money that don’t require so much effort by the academic community and are still trusted by the academic community, then I’m sure that, whichever government is in power after the election, my successors will want to look at that.”


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