Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the University of Northumbria

  The Science and Technology Committee should understand that the Research Assessment Exercise, although it has for the most part produced better grades for all in 2001, was never designed to support the research aspirations of modern universities. MURG members have often observed that in the composition of the panels there is a built in conservatism which supports the status quo ante 1992. There is some evidence that panel judgements in 2001 were norm referenced rather than criterion referenced as per the guidelines. How can the adjudicators, drawn predominantly from the beneficiary institutions, deny self-interest?

  Although there have been significant gains with some subjects in new universities, on the whole these are isolated examples and the global picture remains one in which new universities can expect 3-6 per cent research funding in the block grant, while old universities get 30-60 per cent. Because new universities were not given specific earmarked funding to support research at the time of inception—the so called DevR was woefully inadequate—they have been unable to build a research infrastructure commensurate with their size and are consequently less successful in grant application and external contract bidding. At a recent MURG meeting this was graphically demonstrated when a colleague from Glasgow University indicated that the central research section of his university contained around 50 staff, when in most new universities of an equivalent size, the support section contains no more than 10.

  Notwithstanding these obvious disadvantages, the new universities have, with relatively small investment, produced significant returns. The gearing ratio between block grant income and grants and contracts at Northumbria currently stands at 1:2.5. More important however is the acknowledgement of the fact that new universities have legitimate research aspirations and that they fully subscribe to the idea that research and teaching are the primary functions of any university. They are strong in the belief that the deliverers of new knowledge and understanding should have a stake in their production. What we have seen in the run up to the publication of the Research Assessment Exercise results is nothing short of an abrogation of this fundamental principle, in the claim by ministers and by the Funding Council that the ultimate objective of the RAE should be to support "world class research". World class research, if it is truly world class has many more opportunities available to it to secure funding. Currently however the term is used as a covert code for the maintenance of the present regime in which the bulk of research funding goes to a small group of elite universities. Sir Howard Newby has indicted that only world class research should be funded. This demonstrates a culpable lack of responsibility to the needs of the whole sector. Its effect is to uncouple teaching from research in most universities and to stifle the aspirations of new universities—consigning them to a subordinate teaching only function. This view of the world needs to be vigorously contested if research in Britain is to continue to be innovative, iconoclastic and visionary.

  The Science and Technology Committee is concerned about whether the results of the recent RAE show a real improvement in research performance and whether we need to consider alternative strategies for allocating research funding. If we believe in teaching and research as the primary function of any university, then clearly we have to decide upon a basic level of funding for both of these activities within the block grant. No one objects to appropriate quality assessment or to assessment exercises. The reward for good performance in the delivery of particular subjects, whether in teaching or research (and presently good teaching that goes unrewarded), should occupy a smaller, incentive-related component within a university's recurrent grant. This would get us beyond the present impasse in which the funding council effectively says "show us excellent research and we will fund it" and the universities say "give us the resource and we will produce excellent research". The present confusion which Sir Howard Newby has initiated in the columns of the Higher and in the minds of unthinking ministers, effectively sets aside the assessment of subject performance in teaching and research in favour of "mission diversity", another heavily encrypted term which in the present debate redraws the binary line between the world class research university versus access/lifelong learning/teaching only university.

  We need to have a clear and unequivocal statement that good research and teaching are the obligation of any university and then design a funding methodology to support this view.

Kenneth McConkey

Professor of Art History

Dean of Arts, with special responsibility for research

9 January 2002

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 24 April 2002