25 Oct 2012
Hopefully researchers in universities across the UK have been polishing their tiaras after reading the latest Russell Group report. Whilst we all know that there are diamonds of research excellence everywhere, the Jewels in the Crown report reiterates the antiquated view that a sub-set of universities - which define themselves as world-leading - should get even more of the slice of the cake than they receive already.
Jewels in the Crown (an old title only excused by the fact that it is Jubilee year) is an extraordinarily defensive position for those who have been most vocal in their advocacy of a market in fees. There is no hint here that some universities will be tempted to go private: rather they want to re-define diversity in terms that some may regard as disingenuous.
The Russell Group argues there are insufficient ‘barriers to homogeneity’, citing the fact that all universities are ‘permitted’ to bid for research funding, quality related streams or research council grants, and (shock, horror) most institutions are ‘allowed’ to award PhDs. The report is strangely silent on the fact that these 'other' universities’ research-degree awarding powers were awarded on the same criteria as Russell Group institutions.
The same analysis is applied to teaching where again these ‘world-leading’ universities apparently need preferential funding to allow ‘high quality’ peer groups of students to benefit from excellence.
All of this adds up to a shocking admission: that instead of welcoming competition 24 universities apparently need special funding and state protectionism of a high order including complete autonomy from Government - so long as Ministers stump up the cash. Surely this is a recipe for gross complacency?
As many would acknowledge, behind the real crown jewels there are less edifying stories of empire, imperialism and exploitation. No-one disputes that world-leading research and teaching adds enormous value to the UK but the cause of students and higher education is not well-served by special pleading or a ‘closed shop’ mentality. What is needed is a strategy to unleash the potential of graduates and researchers everywhere and ensure that diamonds shine, wherever they lie.