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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 June, 2003, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
Research focus under attack
Researcher using microscope
Even departments of national excellence are closing
A group of 11 learned societies and subject associations in the UK is urging the government to reconsider its plans to concentrate research in a small number of elite universities.

In a joint statement published on Thursday, the group - which includes the British Educational Research Association, the British Psychological Society and the Royal Geographical Society - said the top research units needed strong support but not at other departments' expense.
Focusing research in only a small number of institutions or departments would be profoundly damaging
Joint statement

University vice-chancellors and higher education unions agree with the complaint - the unions warning that thousands of jobs are at risk.

In its white paper on higher education, published in January, the government announced a 1.25bn increase in university research funding by 2005-6 - a rise of about 30% in real terms.

But most of it was to go to the 55% of departments classified as nationally or internationally excellent in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise.

Academy of Social Sciences
British Computer Society
British Educational Research Association
British Philosophical Association
British Psychological Society
British Sociological Association
Philological Society
Political Studies Association
Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers
Royal Historical Society
Royal Statistical Society
Supported by Universities UK

The government said the move would encourage research in larger units and lead to more collaboration.

But many in higher education regard it as divisive, in effect removing the research role of some universities and creating a "two-tier" system.

The joint statement says: "Concentration of research funding in a few institutions will cause ossification across the sector, closing down the important bedrock research".

"Progress in research in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities depends on diversity.

"Focusing research in only a small number of institutions or departments would be profoundly damaging for the sector, the economy and society as a whole."

Strong backing

The signatories say they believe the government has underestimated the contribution made by departments with lower quality ratings.

The joint statement has been sent to the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, and to the board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

It has the support of vice-chancellors through their organisation, Universities UK.

"We agree strongly with their position, as this reflects our own concerns about increasing levels of concentration in research funding, which is already more highly concentrated in the UK than in the US for example," it said.

It has welcomed the government's recognition of the importance of research and supports the need to invest to international standards.

"However, we believe there must be a balance between funding top-rated departments to support excellence, protecting areas of research excellence across the sector and encouraging new and developing areas of research through appropriate allocations of public funding."

Jobs at risk

Findings published by the Association of University Teachers (AUT), show that research by more than 8,000 academic staff in nearly 500 university departments in England is under threat because of the government's policy.

"This is despite these departments - across the spectrum of medicine, science, engineering, technology, social science, arts and humanities - producing research of national and even international excellence," it said.

At the other main lecturers' union, Natfhe, the general secretary, Paul Mackney, said: "On top of the government's intention to allow universities to charge differing fees, this further concentration of funds will damage many universities."

A spokesperson for the Department for Education and Skills said it was "nonsense" to suggest that 8,000 people would be sacked.

'More money means more jobs'

"More money in the system means, overall, that universities can create more jobs, invest in better facilities, and pay their best researchers more," she said.

Next year 43 institutions would still get more than 5m each.

"But we only going to fund high quality research. As Oxford has shown with its announcement this week of plans to appoint a vice-chancellor from abroad, we live in a globally competitive world.

"Other countries are investing heavily in building world class research universities. To compete we must do the same. Our universities cannot be complacent.

"We need to focus on the best research and on improving research - rather than funding work because we have always funded it."

Bleak future for researchers
20 Jun 03  |  Education
Fears for university funding
11 Apr 03  |  Education
What the strategy says
22 Jan 03  |  HE overview
UK research 'world class'
14 Dec 01  |  Education

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