University research ‘being stifled by red tape’ – Letters to the Editor

Professor Fergus Millar’s letter to the Times published on Saturday. As he notes ‘a physics lecturer called Einstein, who just thought about the Universe, would risk being sacked because he brought in no grants.’

Times, The (London, England) – Saturday, October 26, 2013

Sir, The Minister for the Universities, David Willetts, has finally grasped the most obvious fact about their evolution over the past three decades: the ever-increasing emphasis on research at the expense of teaching (report, Oct 21). What he has not grasped, however, is that this extremely damaging change, which has serious social and economic implications, has been entirely driven by government policies. These include the removal of tenure, so that individuals are faced with toeing whatever the current line is or losing their jobs. Equally fundamental is the massive shift, two decades ago, from direct funding to funding granted for specific research projects. The effect is that the overheads which come with research grants are fundamental to the finances of departments and whole universities.

In consequence, in the modern British university, it is not that funding is sought in order to carry out research, but that research projects are formulated in order to get funding. I am not joking when I say that a physics lecturer called Einstein, who just thought about the Universe, would risk being sacked because he brought in no grants.

One university was recently reported as intending to close its music department because its research income was insufficient. Others give a whole term’s leave for putting together an application for a research grant. So much for the education, or the wider culture, of students.

Worse still, the Research Assessment Exercise, or now “Research Excellence Framework” (REF) works on very short cycles.

The result is to render serious, longterm research, whose results are by definition uncertain, impossible. If you can confidently predict your results in five years’ time (and, as now required, also predict the “impact”), then it is not research.

Worse still, the lecturer whose fulfilment comes from teaching, or from seeing to student welfare, or the running of the department or the exams, now risks, at best, being publicly humiliated as “non-researchactive” or “non-REF-referable”, and at worst being dismissed.

The present system is profoundly damaging, not only to teaching but to research itself.