Former polytechnic weighs mixed blessing: Hertfordshire University intends to learn lessons from its first assessment and build on its reputation for applied research. Michael Durham reports

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The Independent Online
THE RESEARCH ratings were greeted in the corridors of the University of Hertfordshire - the former Hatfield Polytechnic - with a mixture of polite resignation and robust scepticism.

Hertfordshire is one of the 'new' universities created from the former polytechnics, which are this year being awarded research gradings for the first time.

In spite of a good reputation for applied research, Hertfordshire's senior academics were not expecting their results to compete with the long-established research programmes of the traditional universities. In the event there was mixed news: a grade four for computer science put it alongside some of the top universities; for the rest, Hertfordshire picked up two grade threes, eight grade twos and the rest grade one.

'Older universities have played this game once and know how to score on presentation,' Professor Neil Buxton, the vice-chancellor, said. 'Any score we get over one is a bonus. We will learn a few lessons this time round.'

Hertfordshire, which celebrated its 40th anniversary yesterday, was founded as a technical college and has been around for longer than some traditional universities. But research funds have always been hard to come by because of the former split between universities and polytechnics.

The institution has rarely been able to conduct 'blue sky' research, of the open-ended type favoured by the Universities Funding Council. Instead it has concentrated on applied research, often sponsored by commerce and industry. Its proximity to British Aerospace at Hatfield has helped.

It is particularly proud of its science, electronics and biology, as well as the Shakespeare scholarship of its English department.

But computer science most impressed the Universities Funding Council. 'We were expecting a three and are delighted with a four,' Dr Martin Loomes, assistant head of the division, who helped make the submission on behalf of the School of Information Science, said. 'We already know that we have a good reputation and it's nice to have it acknowledged.'

The division has been working on pioneering strategic research, including sophisticated number-crunching, for the European Space Agency, the development of software for the disabled and the design of the next generation of computers.

Its research income last year was pounds 350,000. All this work is now secure and could be expanded if the funding council follows up its rating with substantial money, which would allow the employment of more full-time staff.

At the psychology division, Professor Ben Fletcher, an expert on stress, was a touch put out by the department's grade three. 'We have done well, but we expected a higher rating, actually.' Over the three years covered by the exercise, the division has won grants of pounds 1.1m from charities, government agencies and industry to study a range of problems, including occupational factors in disease, schizophrenia, Down's syndrome and children's sleeping difficulties.

Professor Chris Atterwill, head of biological sciences, was disappointed to find his division had been awarded only a grade one. 'We have done some excellent research. It strikes me that the breadth of our funding has not been taken into account,' he said. Teams from the division have been developing alternatives to animal testing and it recently struck a deal with Glaxo, the pharmaceuticals company, which will establish a pounds 250,000 research centre to study schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease.

But Professor Buxton remained positive about the ratings. 'We are never going to compete with the old universities. Instead we will most likely concentrate our research in certain areas and create centres of excellence. We will undoubtedly pick out winners. This will allow us to do that.'

(Photograph omitted)