Outside the triangle, it's not so golden

Regions could be hurt by research concentration, conference told. Elizabeth Gibney reports

December 13, 2012

Government policies that focus research funding on large institutions could harm innovation and economic growth, especially at a regional level, a conference has heard.

Rama Thirunamachandran, deputy vice-chancellor and provost at Keele University, cautioned research councils and funding councils against using size as a proxy for excellence.

Outside the “Golden Triangle” of Cambridge, London and Oxford, evidence suggested that peaks of excellence were evenly spread across the sector, he said. This challenged the notion that there was any benefit to “critical mass” outside expensive laboratory-based subjects, he added.

“We need to look at the evidence base quite carefully in making judgements and funding decisions, and not always assume that…size alone should be a driver for its own sake,” he said, speaking on 5 December at the Higher Education Policy Institute’s autumn conference, for which Times Higher Education was a media partner.

Research council policies that resulted in concentration, such as funding PhD studentships through doctoral training centres rather than individual institutions, could hurt some regions, said the former director for research at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

“I do agree that research students ought to be taught in a good research environment, but I question how one can end up in a scenario…where very strong research institutions…could end up not being part of a doctoral training centre,” he said.

Speaking later to THE, Mr Thirunamachandran said that other examples of concentration included Hefce’s policy of allocating Higher Education Innovation Fund cash only to institutions with a minimum level of activity and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Impact Acceleration Accounts, because it effectively “totted up money already received from [the] EPSRC and gave additional funding to accelerate impact”.

At the event, Paul Boyle, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, defended his council’s policies, saying “size does not come into the equation whatsoever in the funding we give out”.

But he conceded that it could be argued that doctoral training centres had been involved in concentration. “It does mean that there are a number of universities who now don’t have access to ESRC PhD studentships. Having said that, the decision was taken…based on excellence,” he said, adding that as a result of the centres, quality had improved.

John Neilson, secretary and registrar of Imperial College London, who was at the event, challenged Mr Thirunamachandran’s argument. He claimed that large research institutions benefited from having strengths across a range of subjects and strong pipelines for innovation via technology-transfer bodies.

“To tackle many modern research problems you do really need strength across disciplines, and that is one of the key planks for the argument for concentration,” he said.

He added that government policies were about making hard choices in a flat-cash environment.

Mr Thirunamachandran acknowledged the need for selectivity, but he later told THE that hard choices did not have to mean concentration.

elizabeth.gibney@tsleducation.com.

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