September 23, 2010 10:35 pm

Research ‘treadmill’ under attack

A world-class UK university has called on smaller bodies to team up with larger “hub” institutions, in a radical shake-up of Britain’s research system.



The scheme proposed by University College London, one of the UK’s top four research institutions, could lead to a fundamental redrawing of the English university landscape.

However, it was dismissed by the vice-chancellor of another university as a “land grab” intended to ensure that “traditional” bodies were funded in the coming lean years at the expense of newer institutions.

In a letter to Vince Cable, business secretary, UCL vice-provosts David Price and Stephen Caddick propose that less money should be disbursed as competitive grants and contracts for which universities are required to bid.

Instead, they say, more research should be funded by block grants – stable funds that are awarded annually and without conditions on the basis of a five-yearly assessment of each university’s research output. The two professors call for an end to the “treadmill so that leading researchers spend less time writing grant applications ... and more time undertaking research”.

UCL believes it spends £10m a year on unsuccessful applications for competitive grants, and estimates that the equivalent figure for the university sector exceeds £200m. In 1988-89, 41 per cent of applications were successful, compared with 28 per cent in 2005-06.

To make sure that such a plan would not put smaller bodies at a disadvantage, UCL proposes that big multidisciplinary institutions would be “encouraged and supported” to work with less research-intensive universities.

The letter says that the affiliation between the central hub universities and the spokes could lead to shared facilities, and even allow students and staff to transfer between “spoke” and “hub”.

The vice-chancellor of a university that would be a potential “spoke” said that it was “Bloomsbury imperialism”, referring to the area of London where UCL is based. Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million Plus, a universities think-tank, said that the plans would lead to a “closed shop in research funding”.

People familiar with the UCL plan deny this, noting that the competitive research contracts and grants are awarded among an even tighter concentration of institutions than the block grants.

This latest exchange comes amid a fraught debate over how to keep universities afloat and well-funded as public spending is being slashed. Government departments are in negotiation over the comprehensive spending review while Lord Browne, the former chief executive of BP, is finalising his recommendations into the financing of the English higher education system. Both will be published next month.

An MP on the select committee with responsibility for universities described the challenge facing David Willetts, the universities and science minister, as “a politically toxic task combined with the worst political circumstances during the worst spending round ever”.

Figures released on Thursday by the Higher Education Statistics Agency confirm that a number of institutions are poorly positioned to cope with the coming cuts. In 2008-09, 29 institutions were already running deficits.

If central government subsidies to universities are cut and institutions are expected to raise fees to make up for the lost money, several could struggle to attract enough students to remain viable.

Mr Willetts has refused to rule out closing universities. But if universities are shut, tens of thousands of students could be left with an incomplete degree and loaded with debt.

The latest HESA statistics will also revive concerns among universities about the government’s plans to cut the number of students from outside the EU. The number of non-EU undergraduates increased by 17 per cent in the four years to 2008-09. Foreign students’ fees now make up 8 per cent of the sector’s income.

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