Distributing research funding

I have nothing fundamentally against the Russell Group – some of my best friends work for member universities – but their statements do sometimes alarm me. For readers not familiar with the Russell Group, it is a London-based ‘mission group’ of (from its website) ’24 leading UK universities’. Its main role, as it understands this, is to promote the interests of these universities; though it has been suggested also that it is a would-be university cartel with price fixing on its mind. That may or may not be a fair comment, but, you know…

Anyway, the Russell Group has just published a paper in which it suggests that concentrating funding on a small number of research-intensive universities (by which it clearly means its member institutions) is in the wider public interest. The argument here is that intellectual excellence and knowledge innovation is promoted most effectively when it is resourced in a small but heavily promoted group of institutions, who then develop critical mass and are thus able to compete globally.

As we have noted here before, the idea of research concentration has taken hold of public policy formulation, and politicians in particular appear to be open to its attractions. But still, there is a fundamental flaw in the reasoning. National higher education systems do not gain international prominence because of a small number of favoured institutions: they gain recognition if the whole system demonstrates excellence. Knowledge-intensive investments in a country are made attractive by an overall culture of high value learning and research, not by pockets of achievement in a small number of institutions.

The task for the UK is to maintain a university sector which is recognisably excellent across the great majority of its institutions. This ensures also that excellence is both geographically spread (though probably in regional clusters) and nurtured within a variety of institutional missions. Research concentration promoted primarily in traditional universities will fail to secure some of the more desirable inward investment. To avoid unnecessary duplication, institutions should be encouraged to specialise in the more advanced areas, and then to pool key academics between universities in inter-intsitutional research programmes and partnerships.

It is of course right that research funding should not be distributed so widely that it is ineffective; it needs to be selective. But that selectivity should not focused on institutions; it should recognise excellent people, wherever they may work. So, with the greatest respect to our friends in the Russell Group, its approach to this should be viewed with some scepticism.

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7 Comments on “Distributing research funding”

  1. no-name Says:

    It is not difficult to agree with this: “National higher education systems do not gain international prominence because of a small number of favoured institutions: they gain recognition if the whole system demonstrates excellence.”

    Forgetting the fact that one could dispute the validity of these rankings for any number of reasons, because governments are not known to be swayed by such doubts, it is something of a wonder that the government of Ireland has not created greater celebration of the fact that six of its seven universities ranked in the top 500 in the 2012 QS rankings, five of them in the top 400 (and all seven within the top-ranked 700 in the world).

    Rather than positive, the interpretation in the press is negative. The Irish Times report title on September 11, 2012 was “Irish universities still struggling in world rankings”. The article does not indicate which nations have a higher percentage of its universities among those ranks.

    (http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2012/0911/1224323846801.html — last verified, October 30, 2012).

  2. no-name Says:

    It is not difficult to agree with this: “National higher education systems do not gain international prominence because of a small number of favoured institutions: they gain recognition if the whole system demonstrates excellence.”

    Forgetting the fact that one could dispute the validity of these rankings for any number of reasons, because governments are not known to be swayed by such doubts, it is something of a wonder that the government of Ireland has not created greater celebration of the fact that six of its seven universities ranked in the top 500 in the 2012 QS rankings, five of them in the top 400 (and all seven within the top-ranked 700 in the world).

    Rather than positive, the interpretation in the press is negative. The Irish Times report title on September 11, 2012 was “Irish universities still struggling in world rankings”. The article does not indicate which nations have a higher percentage of its universities among those ranks.

    (http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2012/0911/1224323846801.html
    last verified, October 30, 2012).

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    The Russell Group paper referred to in the post makes for a really interesting read, starting from its title ‘Jewels in the Crown’ revelatory of its self-righteous stance. I really wish that colleagues working at Russell Group universities familiarize themselves with this important document, particularly when it comes to section. 4.9 (p.43) when it is recognized that, following the funding shortfall after the cuts kick in, Russell Group universities will be ‘considering significant cost reductions which involve reducing staff numbers’.
    Another intriguing passage is the following:

    Great strengths of the UK’s higher education system
    include its world-class universities, and, to some extent,
    its diversity, providing the flexibility to meet the needs
    of a broad range of students, employers and business.
    However, the UK higher education system does not
    present many barriers to homogeneity, and does not
    encourage diversity, with underlying funding models
    driving a degree of uniformity in the system.118 For
    example, all universities are permitted to bid for research
    funding, be it through quality related streams or research
    council grants, and most institutions are allowed to award
    PhDs. It is important that public policy decisions (such as
    those on the allocation of funding) encourage more
    diversification within the higher education sector. (p.45)

    What struck me about this was the use of the word ‘diversity’ which, in this context, loses its positive connotation and becomes instrumental to conveying a deeply unfair view of the whole HE system. Under the aegis of ‘diversity’ not ALL university will even be permitted to bid for research funding – on what kind of research funding model such *pleb* universities are destined to survive and flourish is not a concern of the document. Far from bringing about a truly diverse and flexible model that meets the needs of all stakeholders, what is proposed here is a closed, limited, fixed system of HE where few self appointed ‘leading universities’ become the privileged seats of knowledge, the only drivers of innovation. What this document proposes should not come as a surprise to anyone in the university sector, the recent UK government HE policies have created a ‘survival of the fittest’ context and the Russell Group universities have only made their case for survival in the strongest possible terms. This is what social Darwinism applied to HE brings about.

  4. Eddie Says:

    “it should recognise excellent people, wherever they may work”. The fact is the RG unversities have all the excellent word class researchers. It is right that the research should be concentrated there. Nothing SNP/Russell can do about this.

    Another hobby-horse riding; just a cold blast from a corner in Aberdeen.

  5. conorjh Says:

    Interesting to see that Bath U has just left the 1994 Group; Russell or nothing I guess.

  6. Fred Says:

    Some months ago when York et al left 1994 to join russell gang I wrote in this blog that this happened because the above mentioned gang wanted to ask full concentration of research funding for its members. So this document was rather expected. As for the “gang” I am afraid that this is all about. A group that tries to shoot everybody else.
    What few can understand is they are keep shooting their feet because with these statements and aspirations they effectively cause disbelief and systematic risks for the whole UK sector.

  7. Eduard Du Courseau Says:

    Ah yes but the great people flock to the best institutions where they meet other great people and train them. Who wants to languish in a poly when you can hang out with the equestrians in your old alma mater?
    It is still unfortunately an elitist system which is not being properly challenged by the current govt who seem intent on bringing in the private sector to compete not with the greatest but the already downtrodden.


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