Cuts hit status of UK universities abroad

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The Independent Online
British universities, long regarded as the best in the world, are in danger of losing their international status in research, according to a report from four leading academies published yesterday.

Research money will have to be concentrated in a few elite universities if British research is to keep its credibility abroad, claims the controversial report from the British Academy, the Conference of Medical Royal Colleges, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society.

They acknowledge that this will be unpopular but argue that it is inescapable given funding restrictions imposed by the Government.

Britain's research capability, they conclude, is already crumbling. In 1993 we spent just 2.1 per cent of GDP on research and development compared with 2.8 per cent in Japan and 2.7 per cent in the United States. Germany and France also spent a higher percentage of GDP than Britain.

"We hold bottom position, suggesting that the UK research base is underfunded when viewed on the international stage," says the report.

Meanwhile, increasing staff-student ratios are cutting the time academics have for research. Funding per student fell by about 20 per cent in the five years up to 1993-4.

The environment for high quality research is also in decline as libraries, equipment and buildings deteriorate. The report comments: "Our best researchers should not feel that the only way they can find an environment in which they can do top class work is to go abroad permanently."

It argues that government money for higher education should be distributed selectively. "We believe that it is in the national interest that research should be supported adequately even if this means reducing the volume."

Dr David Harrison, Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, who chaired the working group, said universities should concentrate on what they did best and be funded accordingly. "Teaching should have a higher status and not be regarded as a poor relation of research. We want universities to maximise funding from as many sources as possible and we take no comfort from the latest projections of government research spending."

The report says it has become increasingly difficult for new fields of research to establish themselves. The concentration of funds has already begun with 54 per of all research income going to 15 universities.

A spokesman for the Association of University Teachers said he agreed with the report's conclusion about funding difficulties but strongly opposed the idea of more selectivity which would deprive many talented researchers of funding.

"We should like to see the available money spread more thinly. More concentration would effect our ability to recruit the best brains in the university system. If they can't get a place here, they will go to California or Boston."

But the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals welcomed the report. A spokesman said: "There are so many good ideas and so little money that we have to make sure the money is not being spent on second-rate ideas. It may be regrettable but is inevitable in the present funding situation."