Thursday, 24 March 2011

Phil Willis: Concentrate Research

The former Chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, Phil Willis, has been sounding off in the Times Higher about the future of research in the UK, suggesting that the country needs a "real gloves-off rationalisation of university research".

Echoing the implied (or, in some cases, explicit) call for concentration in the Research Council's Delivery Plans, he suggested that research should be focused in 'no more than 30' universities. The rest should retire gracefully from research, and become US-style liberal teaching only community colleges.

Whilst Willis does not weild as much power and influence as he did as an MP, these are still worrying thoughts. The RAE2008 made positive strides in identifying and rewarding excellent research, wherever it was found. Why penalise pockets of excellence in (let's be frank) non-Russell Group institutions? In some areas of hard science, there may be a case to be made for economies of scale and the sharing of large - and expensive - equipment and infrastructure. But in the social sciences and humanities? Hmm.

Moreover, the concensus is that excellent research informs and drives excellent teaching. Separating the two creates a two tier system, consigning the majority of students to second class teaching, removed from the cutting edge of research, and the elite minority to the ivory towers of excellence.

Separating the two is, I think, a retrograde step. For students at institutions like Kent, on the cusp of that 'no more than 30', as well as all those further down the league tables, there are uncertain times ahead.

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