V-cs told to specialise and forfeit autonomy

April 8, 2005

Universities must sacrifice their autonomy to help rescue the provision of key science subjects in the UK, MPs said this week.

A report on strategic science provision in universities from the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee calls for a radical change of direction to stop the flood of closures in chemistry and physics.

It says that instead of allowing all 130 universities to compete for funds in a "winner-takes-all system", each should focus on its strengths. Under this model, universities would specialise and collaborate with other universities on key subjects.

Ian Gibson, chair of the committee, said: "The Government needs to bang the heads of vice-chancellors together until they start looking beyond their doorsteps to the wider national interest. Otherwise it can kiss goodbye to its economic goals."

The MPs predict that universities would initially oppose such an approach, because it would mean setting aside their own interests. They admit that forcing institutions to collaborate will undermine their authority, but add that the Government already influences their decisions "through its control of the purse strings".

Dr Gibson said: "There have been too many closures of university science departments. The Government can't keep papering over the cracks."

Lecturers' union Natfhe expressed concern at the report. Liz Allen, its national higher education official, said: "The committee's proposal could become another step towards teaching-only universities, which Natfhe strongly resists. We accept that not every lecturer needs to be engaged in research assessment exercise research but believe all higher education teaching should take place in a research-active environment."

The Institute of Physics questioned the "practicality" of the MPs'

recommendation, "in light of the competitive environment in which universities have been operating of late".

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