Upbeat UWE will not be sidelined

September 5, 2003

Concentrating funding on the elite has roused despair and defiance. The THES reports.

It is hard to believe Alfred Morris when he claims he is not deliberately trying to "stick two fingers up to the government".

Professor Morris, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, delighted his staff and sent a firm message of defiance to ministers earlier this year when he took out a full-page advertisement in The THES.

Just weeks after the government set out its white paper vision, where new universities such as UWE would be made to focus on teaching while research funding was diverted to an elite few, UWE's advert read: "We chose to do teaching and research, not teaching or research."

Announcing 40 new academic posts, it said: "The UWE academic is an excellent teacher, an excellent researcher and excellent practitioner, and believes all those things are complementary, not optional."

Professor Morris said: "There are no prizes for ignoring the white paper - it is a watershed document. We are not sticking two fingers up, but we do say that we're absolutely clear we want to hold our course notwithstanding the white paper, and we can."

UWE certainly seems to be holding its course. Next week it will launch a genomics research institute - the university's first institute and one that is at the cutting edge of global science.

Although UWE earned only a 3a grade for biomedicine in the last research assessment exercise - making it all but a non-department under the new concentration of research - the university has been happy to plough cash into the venture, part of a £3.6 million investment in the faculty of applied science.

"Our RAE score was crap," admitted faculty dean Wendy Purcell. "But we are working with international businesses. They base their funding decisions on hard business - it's a lot more extreme than academic peer review, which tends to be hidebound by a Russell-Group mentality. They talk a lot about working with industry and contributing to society, but industry funds best science wherever they find it, not just in a supposed elite."

UWE is taken so seriously in genomics that it is poaching staff from the Russell Group. Its slick facilities won over Michael Ladomery, who joined UWE from a biomedical institute at Edinburgh University to become senior lecturer in molecular biomedicine. UWE has also poached Ruth Morse and Craig Donaldson from Bristol University.

Last month, the department won e2.5 million (£1.73 million) from the European Commission to investigate the feasibility of using DNA-based technology for blood testing. A team is also using genomics to develop an alternative to animal experiments.

"We are the best equipped for genomics now in the whole of the Southwest," Professor Purcell said. "We say 'RAE - pah!' We can and we are competing internationally. A lot of new universities panicked after the white paper.

A lot are talking about becoming teaching only, but that is not what UWE's about."

The university also looks set to defy the white paper's vision on top-ups.

The government has indicated that it expects modest institutions such as UWE to charge less than the £3,000 full rate.

But the UWE is confident it can justify steep fee increases along with more obviously popular universities. This week, the university confirmed it had been given planning permission for a £150 million campus, including state-of-the-art student facilities.

"The driver of the plans is the quality of the student experience," Professor Morris said. "It will make us more confident in our ability to survive in a market in which there is more competition."

UWE's increasing popularity is reflected by its decreasing dependence on clearing. In 1995 almost a third of its students applied through clearing, compared with less than 10 per cent this year.

The university does not support top-up fees. "But personally," Professor Morris said, "I see little prospect of the government changing its mind, and something must be done to address fundamental resourcing problems.

"The socioeconomic profile of our students means we are better placed than most in terms of our ability to charge fees," he said. "We have also got the strength of the broad attractiveness of Bristol, and a good subject mix - we are light on subject areas where top-ups would be most difficult to introduce."

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