Universities in the ambitious pursuit of excellence

A new force in universities is trying to stake a claim as a rival to the red-bricks for the quality of its research. But a battle for funding lies ahead

By Liz Lightfoot
Thursday 14 January 2010 01:00

As universities assess the impact of the Government’s funding cuts, there is better news from at least one part of the sector which is involved in a campaign to increase the size and quality of its research.

The last thing education needs is a new acronym, but welcome to NTEU. It stands for New Type of Excellent University, a phrase coined by Andrew Wathey, the vice-chancellor of Northumbria University.

These are the “posh” new universities, the former polytechnics which have vastly increased the number of postgraduates and courses since 1992 and which are now seeking to establish themselves as rivals to the red-bricks for the quality of their research. According to Professor Wathey, members of this new category are “strong in the fundamental activities of teaching and research, and in using these activities to make a real difference to people, enterprises and communities”.

While the research-intensive universities of the Russell Group compete on the world stage in science, medicine or the traditional humanities, these new “excellent” universities are forging ahead in new areas of the economy and niche fields within existing disciplines.

At Northumbria in Newcastle Upon Tyne, the corporate strategy for 2009-2014 includes a commitment to double the university’s research capacity and income over the five years. Already the university with the largest number of taught postgraduate students in the North-east – more than the universities of Newcastle or Durham – it has set an ambitious target of increasing by 50 per cent the number of registered postgraduate research students by 2012.

New graduate centres have been set up in its schools, including a state-of-the-art “hub” for postgraduate law

students and a graduate studio for artists to develop their practice and make contacts across the arts, business and community networks.

The University of the West of England (UWE) has provided an additional £2m over the past few months to fund extra research scholarships. The decision followed a 122 per cent increase in research funding from the Government after the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which judged more than one-third of the work submitted to be world-leading or internationally excellent.

Its research in allied health professions was deemed equal in quality to that at Kings College, London, a leader in the field. The vice-chancellor, Professor Steve West, says the university has succeeded in opening up research

to a wider talent pool than the more selective universities, and the strategy has paid off. “We believe our success in research is down to our ability to draw together business and the community in solving real world issues,” says Professor West.

Alongside the expansion of graduate students at these “new type of excellent universities” has come an increased focus on the research being carried out by lecturers. At Bournemouth University, academic staff not engaged in research or enterprise have been targeted and encouraged to expand their activities. Those without a research background – many of them mid-career from industry or those who have spent their lives dedicated to teaching have been supported by one of the largest staff development programmes in higher education. The Releasing Research - Enterprise Potential programme, launched in 2006, has resulted in 41 published journal articles from 15 staff, and £1.23m in successful funding applications made by a further 30.

Bournemouth has changed a lot in the past four or five years, says Professor Nick Petford, the pro-vice-chancellor. “We have always been strong in terms of our professional output, but on top of that we’ve layered on more and deeper expertise in world-class research across a number of areas, such as health, the environment, 3D animation, design and engineering to name but a few.

“We’re out there competing nationally with many of the more research-intensive universities.”

But in the recession, when money is tight in the public and private sector, where is the money coming from? The most successful new universities on the research scene have played a strategic game, concentrating investment in their best departments which then attracted extra funding through the Research

Assessment Exercise, says Bahram Bekhradnia, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

“Some of the new universities have been receiving an amount of money for research that they didn’t imagine they would get. The Research Assessment Exercise found there was an awful lot of good research worthy of funding, but in limited areas, not across the board,” he says.

Most of the institutions pushing ahead quickly to expand their research bases are members of The University Alliance, set up in 2006 by 22 universities which claim to be “research-engaged and

business-focused, actively engaged in local, national and international economies and new industries”.

Libby Aston, its director, says the growth in recruitment of overseas students, both to the UK and at centres abroad, has contributed to the expansion of research. “These universities are starting to bring in students with some of the highest entry grades, and are developing research which is relevant and useful to new growth areas of the economy,” she says.

Professor Wathey says Northumbria has recently invested in nearly 100 new academic staff, and the process is

continuing. A particular triumph was the hiring of Professor Paul Maharg from the University of Strathclyde, who will be heading Northumbria’s new centre for legal education and research. “We have a history of creating knowledge and expertise which can shape a new economy. These are demanding times for the country and for any organisation supported by the taxpayer. Our judgement is the global recession and climate of challenge in public finances should not impede our progress, but should inspire the university to rise and meet the need for unprecedented innovation and creativity in the decades ahead.”

But there is one cloud on the horizon. Hefce is consulting on the criteria for funding research, and the 20 Russell Group universities are lobbying to influence the new research excellence framework, which will replace the Research Assessment Exercise in 2013, to give extra points and money to institutions which already have a high concentration of world-class research. Such a “critical mass” strategy would reduce the funding for universities with smaller peaks of research excellence than the established, research-intensive institutions.

The University Alliance says the RAE in 2008 showed excellence was more

widely distributed than had been recognised. The economic and social impact of research is related to quality, not necessarily volume, says Professor Janet Beer, the chairman of the alliance.

Professor Wathey says the system must rise against old prejudices: “Any principle of funding which is based on heritage rather than quality cannot be good for the country or for the academy,” he says.

Nor would it be good for the ambitious NTEUs which are building up their expertise in the expectation that money will continue to follow excellence, wherever it is, in the new funding mechanism.

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