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Organise for excellence

The UK-wide research assessment exercise brought Christmas cheer in that Scottish universities have improved their ratings, but it also confirmed that the term "higher education" covers an increasingly diverse group of institutions.

Everyone is aware that Edinburgh University and, for example, the University of Abertay have different roles. The one has long been funded to undertake fundamental and applied research and ranks among the best performers. Abertay emerged from central institution status and has had neither the time nor the resources to build a research record. How the two compare as places to teach undergraduates is therefore more enlightening than their places at opposite ends of the research ratings.

But emphasis on research excellence and the excitement that the exercise creates in the academic world serves only to point up differences. Since the purpose of assessment is to direct funds towards centres of achievement, chasms widen rather than have a chance of narrowing, as the principals of the newer universities would like. In that sense there is increasing diversity of role.

It would be folly to spread research funds too thinly. In the end, comparisons have to be international, and it would do Scotland no good academically or economically to starve gifted and productive researchers who ought to be competing in a world market. The trick is to support them while also identifying and backing pockets of promising research in institutions whose main strengths are in teaching.

There is evidence that the new universities are playing the system better than they did in the previous assessment four years ago, but their principals still regard the exercise as weighted against them. (For that matter the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council holds no brief for distinguishing winners of starred five ratings from other fives. The innovation is because universities in the "golden triangle" of Oxford, Cambridge and London want to signal their special position.) At the other end of the diverse spectrum, independent colleges of education look increasingly out of their depth. Perhaps they should not compete in the research market, or perhaps they will all have to come under a university umbrella if they want to pursue that mission. At present Scotland has few centres of research excellence in the discipline of education. That is a problem of organisation rather than lack of able people.

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