The long-held belief that modern universities have an influence only in their local areas should be consigned to history, one of the UK’s top higher education policy chiefs has said.
Speaking at the Times Higher Education Young Universities Summit at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, David Sweeney, director for research, education and knowledge exchange at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said that some in the sector were still hanging on to the belief that former polytechnics served only their local communities, with older universities taking on the more prestigious role of producing nationally and internationally significant research.
But an analysis conducted by Hefce of impact case studies submitted for the 2014 research excellence framework showed that this perception was outdated and plain wrong, Mr Sweeney said.
“Our geographical analysis shows research from young universities had an impact all over the country,” Mr Sweeney said in a keynote talk at the conference, which is taking place from 5 to 7 April.
“The influence of this research clearly goes way beyond [the universities’] own regions,” he added.
However, there are still some voices in higher education that argue that modern universities have mainly a provincial role in which their focus is overwhelmingly about teaching students or researching local problems, he said.
“The idea that young universities only have a local research role is a significant barrier to overcome in some people’s minds,” he said.
Mr Sweeney, who oversaw the 2014 REF, also said that he did not believe the government was now seeking to concentrate research funding in a smaller number of research-intensive universities despite reports that some institutions are lobbying for this to happen under the next REF.
“Our clearly stated national policy is to fund excellence where it is found,” he said.
“Hefce’s line on [funding] excellence where it is found is the government’s line,” he added, saying that this has even been underlined in the annual grant letter from the government to Hefce on several occasions to emphasise the commitment to this policy.
Mr Sweeney also commended efforts by modern universities to foster links with industry, which in some cases had seen newer institutions create ties to business that are as good as, if not better than, those found at older universities.
“If you have enormous capacity and have been around for a long time, you are likely to have developed industry links,” he said. “However, places like the University of Strathclyde have caught up by investing heavily in [such] links.”
Matt Walker, customer consultant in research intelligence at publisher Elsevier, said that universities needed to make their expertise more apparent to industry if they wanted to increase these types of links.
“The perception is that everyone understands the structures in universities, but trying to find talent to work with is very difficult for industry,” he said.
“Finding an academic expert in Texas is sometimes easier than finding someone in the Greater Manchester area.”