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Puzzling risks to critical excellence

From the demise of well-known high street chains to the collapse of sterling, one topic dominates the news agenda these days, and the outlook is unrelentingly tough. Amidst the economic gloom, however, there is encouraging evidence of UK strength in one key area. When it comes to the source of new ideas, discoveries and innovations–our world-class universities–the UK more than holds its own, despite spending less of its GDP to support them than all but one other G8 nation.

The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise proved that the UK’s top universities are doing research that is world-leading and internationally renowned. These universities will play a vital role in the eventual economic recovery and in maintaining the UK’s ongoing competitive edge.

When it comes to industrial R&D, companies still do the development side but the majority of innovation now comes from the best universities. In fact, the UK is second only to the US in research excellence and, with just 1 per cent of the world’s population, produces 9 per cent of publications and accounts for 12 per cent of citations. Universities are finding ways to improve healthcare and produce new non-carbon emitting sources of power. And they are spinning out their technical innovations into small and medium size companies, creating jobs and helping to make the economy competitive.

This Government has a good record on support for university research. During recent years, it has increased funding well ahead of inflation. In his annual grant letter last month to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, universities secretary John Denham stressed the need for maintaining this high level of funding for those institutions that carry out the largest volumes of world-class research. In particular, he singled out the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

I am therefore puzzled by signs that HEFCE may, at this most critical time, reduce the funding allocated to the UK’s world-class universities (RF, 4/02/09, p1).

In the 2001 RAE, around one third of university research received the highest 5* rating. The changes for the 2008 exercise meant that 150 out of 159 institutions received the highest 4* rating for some of their research. The available funds will inevitably be spread more thinly, reducing the amount that will go to those universities with a critical mass of excellence.

That may contradict Denham’s stated intention “to maintain high levels of funding for those institutions with the largest volumes of world-class research”. And begs the question of why we have a dual funding system if HEFCE cannot fund it appropriately.

The RAE 2008 clearly shows that pockets of excellence exist across the UK. But solitary islands of excellence are no good if you are trying to solve global problems. For that you need concentrated multidisciplinary excellence, sustained by long term funding. It took the best engineers, physicists and computer scientists in the world to design and build CERN; the development of what became the World Wide Web is just one result of the creative problem-solving triggered by the research at CERN. The scale of the challenges that face the planet make it very unlikely that their solutions will arise in places where a critical mass of researchers is not assembled.

Advocates of thinly spread funding have argued that increasing funding for those pockets of excellence need not threaten the top universities, as they will be able to make up the lost funding from other sources.

However, this argument looks frail at present. The global economic outlook is such that external funders have rising pressures on their own resources. Without appropriate support and funding, we will end up with a mediocre system of higher education, and the UK will have an international reputation that reflects that.

In this economic climate, no sensible person or business would make an investment unless the benefits of doing so were clearly demonstrated. The UK’s leading universities have repeatedly proven their worth over successive RAEs, in the impact of their highly-rated research and in world rankings, with four in the world’s top ten. This excellence is good for the UK and for the world, and must be preserved.Roy Anderson is Rector of Imperial College London.