Western institutions form posse in bid for a fistful of research dollars

Four UK universities join forces to gain competitive edge in funding shoot-out. Elizabeth Gibney writes

January 24, 2013

The universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter are the latest institutions to club together in an effort to maximise their research strengths in the face of increasing competition.

Launched on 24 January, GW4, which stands for Great Western Four, is a formal collaboration set to rival the existing N8 alliance of research- intensive universities in the North of England and the M5 group in the Midlands.

Dame Glynis Breakwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bath, said that, taken together, the institutions’ breadth and depth of research expertise would provide “a powerful new contender in the increasingly intense competition for research funding on both the national and international level”.

In differing combinations the institutions already collaborate on four research council doctoral training centres, as well as on programmes in translational medicine, food security, chemical catalysis and technology transfer.

According to the University of Bristol’s deputy vice-chancellor, David Clarke, the alliance will build on these existing collaborations and lead to cooperation in research grant applications, IT procurement, infrastructure and equipment sharing.

Although no large joint capital investments are currently planned, ideas will “almost certainly” be put on the table in the future, such as in high-performance computing, said Professor Clarke. “Perhaps we could have some joint capital investment in the longer term, as well as doctoral training and staff appointments - both for permanent staff and those visiting from around the world,” he told Times Higher Education.

The main driver behind the formation of the group was funders’ increasing interest in research cooperation. “The bids that are cooperative can not only look better in terms of capability and capacity but are more likely to be successful,” Professor Clarke said. This did not just mean getting more money but success in tackling “grand challenges” such as in water, composite materials and sustainability, he added.

Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol, called the rapidly emerging groups of research-intensive universities an “important evolution”.

“These will be increasingly important in order for universities to address grand intellectual and societal challenges,” he said.

Colin Riordan, Cardiff University’s vice-chancellor, said the move was about creating a “critical mass” of excellence with other UK universities. “In a competitive higher education sector, we need to find new ways for Wales to compete for research income,” he said.

Professor Clarke stressed that the alliance in no way limited staff’s collaboration outside the group, nor was it a “closed shop” to other institutions in the South West and Wales.

Instead he hoped that institutions would benefit from each other’s existing relationships, both inside and outside the UK, while the economy of the region as a whole could profit.

As well as serving as a magnet for research council funding, GW4 hopes to collaborate on working with industry, a step already taken by the N8 through its Industry Innovation Forum in Leeds, launched in January last year. The bringing-together of large businesses and higher education could help to fill a gap left by the closure of the regional development agencies last year, Professor Clarke said.

He added that GW4 would have dedicated funding from all four institutions and would be guided by a steering board. “We want this to be a reality and not just a number,” he said.

elizabeth.gibney@tsleducation.com.

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