Britain needs brainpower

Funding research in only a few key universities sounds unfair but makes sense, argues David Harrison
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Research is the advancement of learning through the discovery of new knowledge, or of new associations between events or phenomena already known. It is original in nature and its greatest achievements enjoy a lasting and worldwide recognition. In short, it contributes to the quality of life.

The group I chaired - set up by the British Academy, the Conference of Medical Royal Colleges, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society - has concluded that for Britain to maintain its ability to conduct high-quality research, the funds available must be concentrated in relatively few universities. This may strike critics as not being fair, but it reflects an unavoidable fact: a critical lack of resources.

Our group was asked whether the present university system has the research capability to deliver what is now being asked of it. We consulted very widely and the answer we must give is no. This follows inevitably from the abundant evidence we were given on:

n The low proportion of the national GDP assigned overall in this country to research and development compared with that in other leading industrial countries. The quality of our university research is ultimately judged by international standards.

n The rising student/staff ratios - for example, from 13 to 19 students per member of staff in the humanities, and from 10 to 15 in engineering - which are squeezing the staff time so essential for high-quality research.

n The serious rundown of university infrastructure, including libraries, equipment and building maintenance.

Our response to this situation could have been a vigorous and heartfelt call for more public expenditure on research, and in our report we in no way hide our concern that the UK is falling behind its major international competitors. We were nevertheless obliged - again on the evidence put to us - to face the painful likelihood that public funding per student will continue to fall; and this would be on top of a 20 per cent fall in real terms in the five years to 1993-94. This decline greatly reinforces the pressure on universities to increase their other sources of research funding (eg, from charities, industry, the European Union and alumni).

Research money is not distributed uniformly across the 100 or so universities in the UK, and it never has been. Originally, each year's distribution largely followed a historical pattern; but, since the first national research assessment exercise in 1986, and again in 1989 and 1992, the funding councils' distribution has been arrived at by peer review, which has sought to reward high-quality research. This has been judged by national standards (given research ratings of three or four) or international standards (rating five). The degree of concentration is now high, with more than 50 per cent of all research grant and contract income to all universities in 1993-94 going to 15 universities. This selectivity of research funding occurs not only with funding councils but equally with research councils, charities and industry.

Our recommendationm, therefore, to increase concentration of research funds in a relatively few universities follows inevitably from the severe, long-term constraints on public funding, and the high cost normally associated with the achievement of high quality on the international stage. The degree of selectivity reflects the lack of resources.

A non-selective policy would of course be possible, and it is perhaps an easy option that some say would lead to a fairer system. But it is not the quality option, nor the one the English Funding Council had in mind when it said in evidence to the Government's review of higher education last year: "For academic as well as economic reasons, care should be taken to maintain a number of world-class institutions which compare internationally with the very best universities in the world."

We consider it is vital for the funding councils to develop methods that explicitly encourage a diversity of mission across a system of a hundred universities. Many academic staff are no longer in effect funded for research, and certainly not adequately, and it is deeply unsatisfactory that with only two available streams of money - one for teaching and the other for research - that all universities are forced to compete for research funds regardless of their institutions' mission. This pressure is heightened, particularly at the present time because the ceiling on the number of home and EU students is an impediment to any university wishing to grow in order to increase its teaching funds.

The present teaching and research funding methodologies are institutionally inequitable, and they are fundamentally unstable in the long run if universities are to be encouraged to sustain missions for the benefit of society that are both diverse and cost effective. We therefore see the need to create a third stream of money, which we call professional development and teaching, targeted to university departments that have student/staff ratios above the national average and did not enter the research assessment exercise.

We seek in this way to reduce student/staff ratios, to provide academic staff with more time to keep abreast of their subjects and to better perform as effective university teachers. It may also be possible to contribute to the support of the professional activity of academic staff with, for example, library and laboratory materials for teaching, staff training and the cost of academic collaboration with other institutions.

Where is the money for this third stream going to come from? If it cannot be found as genuinely new money to the university system, our preferred option would be to seek resources for professional development and teaching from present research funding at the lower end of the quality range, as judged by the research assessment exercises. For example, for the English universities in 1992, about pounds 30m was allocated to units of assessment with the low rating of two, with that sum currently allocated almost equally between the old and the new universities.

The introduction of this new funding stream by raiding the existing research stream will not, of course, be universally popular; but we urge its serious consideration by the funding councils with, we hope, government encouragement in favour of diversity of mission, in order to meet the essential needs for high quality, equity between universities and the future financial stability of the university system as a whole.

The writer, Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, chaired a working group on university research by the British Academy, the Conference of Medical Royal Colleges, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society.