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Midlands bloc hopes for safety in numbers as resources battle intensifies

Five Midlands universities have come together to form a regional bloc of institutions aimed at maximising research income.

Members of the group have joined forces amid fears of an intensifying battle for resources elsewhere in the sector.

The M5 group, comprising the universities of Birmingham, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick, is centred on sharing equipment so that the institutions' researchers can boost their chances of winning grants.

John Heath, pro vice-chancellor for estates and infrastructure at the University of Birmingham, said that the alliance will also help in funding bids for high-end equipment that are increasingly focused on "a small number of places".

"It would be logical...that you would form alliances to maximise your chances of winning that funding," he added.

The move appears to emulate the N8 group of research-intensive universities in the North of England, which was launched in 2008 to boost research collaboration and share resources among members.

The M5 development comes as concerns rise among smaller institutions that they could be left behind if the government's research policy increasingly favours their larger rivals.

Mark E. Smith, Lancaster University's vice-chancellor, recently told a joint meeting of the university's council and senate that a "federated model" was "one example of how the university might achieve its strategic ambitions" in present circumstances.

Minutes from the meeting state that Lancaster has "suspended" its proposal for a federation with the University of Liverpool, a proposal that attracted criticism from some members of staff.

But Professor Smith called for the continued consideration of strategic change. One option was to consider "whether Lancaster would be willing to be the junior partner with a world-leading university", he said.

In an ensuing discussion at the meeting, it was noted that "it was possible that smaller universities such as Lancaster would no longer be eligible to bid for all government research funds".

The university - which is already a member of the N8 group - may have to "increase in size and research power substantially" to realise its goals, the meeting heard.

A separate council meeting heard expressions of "concern that the recent expansion of the Russell Group might affect the government's medium-term funding policies, to the detriment of Lancaster".

The Lancaster and M5 plans come with the government yet to guarantee the future of the research ring fence in any future spending review, prompting concerns that cash could become scarce - and competition even fiercer.

Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, said the difficulty was that the government might see "simple solutions, one of which is to arbitrarily draw a line under a particular mission group" when allocating funding.

But others in the sector argued that quality-related research funding was already highly concentrated, so further movement in that direction would result in Russell Group institutions eating into each other's shares.

Professor Heath said that the M5 group, which is to launch officially in the autumn, was not a "top-down" policy but about "opportunities for academics".

Kevin Schürer, pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at the University of Leicester, said he believed that such groupings would increasingly emerge "on a regional or some other logical basis".

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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