Research: An unbeatable offer: a five-star professor: Backing winners is the way to attract research funds, explains Karen Gold

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHEN the acclaim died down, the phone calls began. Would Westminster University's Centre for Communication and Information Studies, the only former polytechnic department to win a world-class research ranking, be interested in relocation? Pleasant red-brick environs, plenty more computers, closer to the heart of academe . . .

Nicholas Garnham, director of the Westminster centre, believes that such attempts to poach successful researchers is an inevitable result of awarding research money to universities on a quality ratings system.

Premier-league research centres - Oxbridge, Imperial College - draw in top researchers anyway. But the effect of the new payment-by-quality system of research funding which began this year in British universities is that middle- to lower-ranking institutions are better off finding quick ways to boost their performance in a few departments, rather than going for across-the-board improvements.

Professor Garnham says: 'With selective funding we are seeing British universities beginning to operate like American ones, with a star system.'

Star researchers are put under pressure to do the rounds of conferences and publish fast and furiously, but they also become the focus for a university's limited research resources. Take Hertfordshire University, for example. As Hatfield Polytechnic, one of the top 10 polys, it was synonymous with computers and engineering, particularly aerospace engineering. Now, with the local demise of British Aerospace and facing competition in the much bigger league of universities, it has to carve out a new role for itself.

Neil Buxton, the university's vice-

chancellor, says it will be concentrating research money in fields where academics rate it highly - computer science, psychology, English, but not heavy engineering - and by picking future winners.

He cites Ralph Stacey, the university's professor of management, whose department received a mediocre research ranking, but who individually appears to be heading for business-guru status. 'We need to give him support as a leader in the field,' says Professor Buxton. 'We need to give him research assistants, computers, make sure he has every facility so he can collect around him other academics with kindred interests. That's how you build up a real momentum, until you have a centre of excellence.'

Backing research winners is the most contentious issue in universities, old and new, at the moment. The Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) told institutions a fortnight ago how much money each would receive in the next academic year for research. The amounts varied hugely: Oxford University, for example, will get pounds 40.6m; Oxford Brookes University, the former Oxford Poly, just pounds 1.7m.

The difference is related directly to the varying amount and quality of existing research. Oxford University has many departments rated at the top-class level 5 in the research rankings drawn up last year by the Universities Funding Council. Oxford Brookes has no 5s, and only one department, town planning, rated at the good level 4. The rest of its research is rated between 3 (middling) and 1 (poor). Departments with 5s pull in most HEFC research money for their university; those rated 1 get nothing.

But once the universities get their hands on the money, they do not have to allocate it according to the rankings. They may decide that top-class departments can keep up their own momentum. They may pick out those 3s or even 2s that are on the up, and ignore altogether those they think have peaked. They may set up US-style graduate schools to attract research students who would not otherwise consider the institution.

Older universities have not hesitated in snootily pointing out the small sums and predominance of 1s and 2s in the former polytechnics. But their new rivals have an aggressive response: unlike the old universities they have had no official money for research at all until this year. Their achievements are based on private cash and spare time. Just think what they will do now that they have some money, too.

In fact, they will do exactly what the established universities are doing: buy equipment, time and people. Everywhere except Oxbridge and London is doing the same. Southampton University, for example, is aiming to rise in the next research rankings from the top 20 to the top 10. To do so, it needs to keep its 4s and 5s where they are and move its 3s up a notch. But it has 17 level 3s. Roy Farrar, deputy vice- chancellor, admits that not all of them can be boosted at once.

Strategies discussed at Southampton include targeting key learned journals, moving staff between different research groups to affect their ratings, unfreezing key posts, and even encouraging unproductive researchers to take early retirement. 'We need to release good researchers to go out and pursue good research, rather than bogging them down in administration,' says Professor Farrar. 'We have to capitalise on our strengths.'

De Montfort University, formerly Leicester Polytechnic, has constructed a winner-picking panel of outsiders. Senior government advisers, heads of large companies, and top-flight academics meet this month to consider existing De Montfort research and nominate promising fields for the future.

De Montfort, as the new university awarded the most HEFC money to develop research, is hoping to become a serious contender for research projects and students. Michael Brown, the pro-vice chancellor, says the university will pick five or six areas, looking five to ten years ahead: 'There's no way we are going to become Imperial College. But in the next few years, in certain fields, we will be a research force to be reckoned with.'

(Photograph omitted)