Warwick joins fellowship elite

January 27, 1995

Oxbridge students have long spoken about the college-based postdoctoral step of the academic ladder in exclusive, knowing terms. It is not a junior research fellowship but a "JRF". Soon, however, they may have to start enlarging their vocabulary to include WRF for Warwick research fellowship.

Warwick is now selecting 50 young scholars in a scheme which is set to challenge the Oxbridge dominance of the postdoctoral market.

Last week 250 scholars from around the world and across the full range of academic disciplines received an invitation for interview. With a one in five chance of getting the fellowship, the applicants, despite boasting distinguished PhDs, still have much to prove. Yet they are the lucky ones. Warwick received nearly 10,000 inquiries and some 2,000 firm applications. It is easy to see why the WRFs attracted so much interest.

They run for six years -- double the time of the typical Oxbridge JRF -- and more strikingly, they offer the prospect of a permanent post for those scholars who establish an international reputation.

Brian Follett, Warwick's vice chancellor, says the WRFs are pitched higher than the JRFs and are comparable with the Royal Society university research fellowships, with which he was associated. It perhaps proves his point that several Oxbridge junior research fellows applied to Warwick.

The 50 WRFs will transform the age profile of Warwick's lecturers, increasing the number of under-35s from 18 per cent (already above the national average for old universities of 17 per cent) to 22 per cent. It will also ensure that Warwick -- which is ranked in the top half dozen research universities -- looks good when the next research assessment comes around in 1996.

But Sir Brian denies that this prompted the scheme. Warwick has decided to recruit young researchers rather than "hoover up stars" because of a conviction that "youth is an important factor in the energy behind novel discoveries".

But the scheme does show that Warwick is wealthy and has cleverly nurtured its links with business. The Pounds 10 million funding for the WRFs comes from what it calls "earned-income" operations. The university derives 54 per cent (Pounds 65 million) of its income from a myriad of activities. In 1992/93, Pounds 16 million was ploughed back into the university. This net amount is set to rise to Pounds 19.8 million by 1996/97.

Three plush purpose-built conference centres last year raised more than Pounds 3 million from links with industry. One, Scarman House, doubles as the national training centre of accountants KPMG. The business school runs a range of professional MBA programmes for companies as diverse as British Telecom and Jaguar, and it attracts industry research support worth an annual Pounds 2.5 million. Another sign of Warwick's close links with industry is the recently-built Pounds 5 million Modern Records Centre, which was part-financed by BP on condition that it could house the company archives under the same roof.

The most striking (and profitable) example of university-industry collaboration is the Warwick Manufacturing Group. Last week Howard Davies, director of the Confederation of British Industry, highlighted its work as an example of the way UK companies are benefiting from university links. Rover and Rolls Royce are key supporters, a Pounds 20 million international manufacturing centre is being built, and the American software group ComputerVision has just signed a Pounds 25.6 million contract to develop and sell enhanced technology.

All this shows that Warwick has come a long way since the days when E. P. Thompson, then a history professor at Warwick, argued that the administrators had sold academic achievement down the river of commercialism. The university is still keen to exhibit the symbols of tradition: there is a crest and Sir Brian rejects the title "chief executive" adopted by the vice chancellors of some commercially-oriented new universities. But these do not detract from the fact that Warwick today means business.

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