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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
Bleak future for researchers
Academics are complaining about the way the government is concentrating research funding on the more elite institutions - putting at risk departments with less than top-notch ratings.

By Gary Eason
BBC News Online education editor

At the University of Salford's School of Management Professor Jeryl Whitelock and colleagues are having to consider their futures in the internationally-competitive world of higher education.

Less-than-excellent subject areas are at risk
Ironically the global economy is something they know all about - being experts in international marketing.

But the university's submission of their research as part of its overall "business and management" portfolio in the last official assessment exercise (RAE) resulted in a 3a rating.

Departments nationally were rated on a six-point scale from 5* downwards.

Systemic problem

Prof Whitelock had expected to get extra resources and to make a pitch for a higher rating next time around - but no departments rated below 4 are now getting government funding.

Jeryl Whitelock
Jeryl Whitelock faces an uncertain future

She said she and her nine immediate colleagues in marketing research were victims of a "fatuous" system.

"The assessment masks variety within the groups. There must be people who are more than 3a and those who are less."

While there is an element of "she would say that", her point is that not everyone in every highly-rated department is necessarily excellent, while people who are doing excellent work can see their efforts undermined by underperformance elsewhere within their department.

Underlining this, the RAE overview of marketing said: "Some marketing researchers provide an isolated sparkle of international excellence in larger departments."

If weaker departments close, Prof Whitelock asks, from where will the elite institutions recruit their younger researchers?

"We grow them and they go off and get jobs with Umist," she said, only partly tongue-in-cheek.


Salford's marketing researchers have been asked to seek researchers in higher-rated areas with whom they might collaborate.

"That's good in some ways, but not if it's not relevant," Prof Whitelock said.

Within the university, subjects rated 4 and above were built environment, European studies, library and information management, metallurgy and materials, music, sociology, and statistics and operational research.

"What do you do? Give up research and concentrate on teaching and administration, when for years you have been urged to focus on research?"

She said these were "very difficult decisions for us as individuals" - especially those only recently recruited to contribute to particular research work.

But there was also a knock-on effect on the institution if her group were to lose its identity and standing.

Closure threat

At Durham University, the whole Department of East Asian Studies is to close - taking its last undergraduates in 2004, even though application numbers are rising.

In a briefing for staff and students, the head of the department, Chinese specialist Don Starr, said: "We have a senior management that appears not to be sympathetic to the subject.

"We do not share their apparent view of East Asian studies as a minor, insignificant subject, which would be no loss to the university, the region and the country."

He said the university's aims included making Durham one of the UK's top five universities - seen mostly in terms of research excellence.

In the RAE in 2001, Durham set a score of 4 as the "minimum acceptable" and 12 subjects in the university achieved that. Of those the smaller, independent departments were "targeted for reassessment and/or restructuring".

"The vice-chancellor gave an undertaking to Senate that an independent review of the departments concerned would be carried out before any closures were considered. This has not been done," Mr Starr said.


He was told his department's strategic plan was unsatisfactory, and its future was being reconsidered.

Mr Starr said staff had made a big effort to improve their research production.

"We are totally convinced that the department can meet the university's 100% staff submission with minimum 5 standard by the next RAE in 2007."

Durham said it was phasing out "a small number of relatively low-demand subjects" as part of its largest strategic re-organisation for 40 years - the other two being linguistics and European studies.

There would be 8.7m more investment, concentrated on "a number of key academic subjects that are internationally competitive in research and have strong student demand".

It was also restructuring and investing in other areas.

"Where the proposed changes would mean phasing out academic posts, there will be consultations and every step taken to avoid compulsory job losses," it said.

It added: "Every possible step will be taken to enable those students on courses due to be phased out to complete their degrees."

But student Ross Carvalho said: "As students we are worried that the closure of the department will not only de-value our degrees, but the courses we had originally planned for the years ahead may not be available due to inevitable staff losses.

"These losses would also cause the university to recruit more staff to teach us, but the student body do not believe that new staff would be as good as the current staff."

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