Thursday, 13 January 2011

Building a Smarter Future (1)

The heading of this post comes from the Scottish Government's Green - consultation - Paper on higher education in Scotland, published in December 2010 and inviting comments in the next couple of months. The whole process has been set up with a view to arriving at specific proposals about Scottish higher education for whatever government we have in Scotland after the May 2011 elections to consider. If all goes according to plan, any new arrangements are supposed to come into effect from academic year 2012-13, so there isn't a great deal of time to reach agreement, pass the needed legislation, and prepare for implementation.

In this post I want to comment specifically on the section of the Green Paper dealing with research, while in the next one I shall comment on proposed funding arrangements for Scottish universities. There are lots of other topics covered in the Green Paper, and I would encourage all readers to get their own copy by using this link. In addition, the Scottish Government has set up a website to facilitate discussion about the issues raised in the Green Paper; again, just go to this link.

General remarks
There are three general points I would make before talking about my main topic of research.

(1) Given the amount of discussion about funding research and funding students across the UK that has already taken place, it seems a little surprising for Scotland to be embarking on this consultation exercise with a virtually clean slate, apparently open to any ideas that might come forward - except for the taboo topic of tuition fees. The whole process has the feel of re-inventing the wheel, and I only hope we don't come up with a square one just for the sake of being different from England! It's hard not to think that at least in part, what is going on in Scotland is a delaying tactic to ensure that no controversial decisions about the Scottish universities are taken prior to the May election.

(2) A term used widely in the Green Paper is 'learner journey', referring to the diverse pathways taken by students from application to a university through to getting a degree. To me, the term has a somewhat patronising feel to it, though I dare say that was never intended.

(3) The Paper is clearly aiming to come up with what it calls a 'Scottish Solution' to the conundrum of financing and organising Scottish higher education in these times of falling budgets and limited resources. Personally, I'm quite sceptical that there is anything uniquely Scottish to be discovered, so I await the outcome of this whole exercise with enormous interest.

Research is one of the core activities of a good university, along with the teaching of undergraduate and postgraduate students. And in the best cases, the more advanced teaching ought to be able to draw on the research findings of academic staff, a process that often benefits both teaching and research.

Research in UK universities is funded through several channels - research grants for specific projects (from diverse sources, including the Research Councils); from the relevant funding council for research infrastructure; and also from the funding council as a result of the most recent research assessment exercise - the last of which was RAE2008. In the future, the RAE is to be replaced by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), but as presently envisaged, it too will be used to allocate part of the public money for universities on the basis of research performance.

For Scotland, the Green Paper (GP) asks some important questions about how research should be supported and funded. One quite fundamental one (GP, p17) asks whether we need to retain research in all of our universities. It seems to me that the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) might reasonably decide not to allocate any public research money to a given university, let us say, but this would in no sense prevent it from doing research. Individual academics would still be free to pursue their research interests, and could support them by winning research grants. So I would certainly want to see in Scotland a situation where all universities were free to undertake research, without necessarily insisting that all should receive public funding.

The GP (p17) also asks whether research funding should be more concentrated or focused on larger research groups. If our concern is to achieve the highest possible good quality research output from limited resources, this seems a poor way to achieve that, as there is very limited evidence that larger research groups are more effective, or more productive than smaller ones in most fields.

More controversially, GP (p18) raises the idea of focusing research funding on Government priorities, supposedly to 'have a greater impact on increasing sustainable economic growth'. This idea seems to me complete nonsense, not because I am against growth, but because I am absolutely certain that the Government has no idea what particular research would stimulate faster growth. No doubt there are lots of connections between research and growth, but they are terribly poorly understood. This relates a little to the whole 'impact' agenda that has become fashionable these days. Again, most researchers have no idea about the possible or likely impact of their work, though we can all make up stories if our research administrators tell us to do so. But really, it doesn't mean a great deal.

An aspect of GP that seems to me quite weak in the research chapter has to do with international aspects of research. True, this does get a mention on p18, but there ought to be far more to it. After all, Scotland is a small country, competing and operating internationally in numerous areas of research, and this international dimension must have a lot to do with Scottish universities' remarkable success in research. Our natural research partners are not necessarily other Scottish universities, or Scottish firms, but they will often lie much further afield - in the UK, Europe, or anywhere else in the world. Finding and nurturing these international links seems absolutely critical to Scotland's future as a nation that values the research that universities do, and I would hope that whatever Scottish Solution finally emerges later this year will include some very strong acknowledgement of, and support for all this. The last thing we want is a set of institutional and funding models that foster more parochial thinking in our universities. The whole world is out there for us to study and explore, and it's an exciting place.

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