Confessions of a concentratist

I have a confession to make. During my days at Russell Group institutions I favoured the research concentration tendency; that is, the view that it would be better if fewer universities were funded by central government to undertake research. I now understand that I was wrong. There, I’ve said it. And I’m sorry.

I’m sorry because I had not taken the trouble to take a careful look at the quality of research being undertaken in universities such as Nottingham Trent University (NTU) which I have recently joined as vice chancellor. Like many institutions outside the Russell Group, we have areas of research that would bear comparison with the best work being done anywhere in the world. Small in scale, niche in focus, but still absolutely outstanding.

Furthermore, these areas of research in part reflect the longstanding relationship between Nottingham Trent and the economy of the City and Region. One good example is our continuing study of the methods and benefits of embedding technology into textiles; rooted in a traditional local industry but recently funded by EPSRC in recognition of the quality of the science. Without RCUK support this work may not be taking place anywhere, and certainly not in a locality where it can connect directly with the design and fashion industries long based here.

I know that some will still be sceptical, arguing this is all very well and good but rather anecdotal. However, University Alliance has recently released a report that provides an evidence base to back up my claims and put them in to the national context.

Size doesn’t matter

The University Alliance report provides robust analysis of key data to demonstrate that:

“Concentration based on size of research unit does not drive quality. The idea of ‘critical mass’ leading to excellence is a myth in all but a few subjects: smaller units that perform good research acquire resources to grow, but larger units do not continue to improve with concentrated funds.”

It proves the benefits for continuing to fund research in a selective process which is driven only by the quality of the research as judged by peers, rather than on the basis of generalisations about the respective merits of the institutions concerned.

Making this case – and securing the continuation of the dual funding mechanism of RCUK and QR funding – is important in its own right, and particularly critical in times of austerity where these budgets are put at risk.

Although we have our research peaks, academic colleagues across all of our schools are undertaking research that leads to outputs and impact at least partially funded by QR; indeed, our peaks originated in this broader plateau. The forthcoming REF results will underscore this point.

A wider imperative

Recognising and funding quality research wherever it occurs has also a wider imperative. This relates to the experience of our students, and, in particular, the potential of universities to transform the lives of young people from our most disadvantaged communities.

For a range of reasons, and notwithstanding the best efforts of HEFCE, OFFA and universities themselves, those outside the Russell Group take significantly more students from the lowest income households in the UK. In September 2014, NTU admitted well over 1,000 such students; I am confident none of the Russell Group, or indeed former 1994 Group, universities will have got close to this number and will not do so for some time to come.

There have been persuasive arguments put forward in recent years that admitting poorer students is only the start of their journey of social mobility. They will require, for instance, more support in identifying the placements, mentors etc. that students from more privileged backgrounds may be able to create for themselves. As importantly, they also need access to research-informed teaching that Russell Group universities sometimes claim as their distinctive feature.

However, it would severely restrict access to such research-led teaching if academics at universities such as NTU were prevented from pursuing QR and RCUK money just because of their institutional affiliation. The REF process that underpins the allocation of QR funds has brought much needed focus to and investment in institutional research strategies and their implementation. RCUK awards bring external peer validation of the quality of research projects in addition to resources. Both are at risk from any further moves towards concentration.

Scholarship would no doubt continue in these circumstances. However, concentration would have a negative impact on the opportunity and motivation of research active staff in universities such as NTU and thus on the profundity of our teaching; the teaching of those very students who may most benefit from research-led pedagogy would be most seriously disadvantaged. It may stop, for example, students at NTU becoming participants in their tutors’ research projects, something that we know is valued by students and employers alike.

Overall, then, mindful research dilution is as beneficial to quality of teaching as it is to the quality of research itself. It may not be as neat or tidy as concentration, but for a range of reasons it is much more palatable. In this context, admitting the previous error of my ways seems a small price to pay.

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