Scientific investigation is no longer the preserve of a few universities. Simon Midgley reports on a new academic drift
THE proper home for research is generally thought to be the university and, increasingly, not just any university but a select band of first-class institutions.
However, research also takes place in further education colleges - principals and senior lecturers argue that such work is of considerable benefit to the quality of teaching and learning.
Much of the work in colleges is action research - developing and disseminating good practice in teaching and learning, according to Ursula Howard of the Further Education Development Agency.
It includes work on college governance and management, technical aspects of qualifications, curriculum development, quality assurance and strategic planning. Some lecturers also study for further degrees to enhance their qualifications.
"There is a growing research culture in further education," Ms Howard, director of research and development, said. "At FEDA we foster that spirit of inquiry, the reflective practitioner developing research skills. There is now a network of people in colleges developing a research culture."
While there is no surviving tradition of pure research in FE there are some places where the flame is alight. The same is true for externally-funded research - a big revenue earner for the universities. There are also many examples of flourishing applied research. FE institutions that offer degree programmes in conjunction with local universities tend to be the places where research takes place.
One of the foremost networks in this field is the Mixed Economy Group (MEG) of colleges which have significant proportions of higher-education work and research. One of these is Stockport College of Further and Higher Education.
Stockport has a research policy modelled on the old Council for National Academic Awards definition. This includes writing books, articles, consultancy, applied research and research into teaching and learning. It also has a research committee to encourage lecturers and bid for the limited cash available for research.
The college can boast cutting-edge research that is set to transform some industrial processes. One such project - in conjunction with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology - is due to the efforts of one man, Dr Gahsem Nasr, head of the mechanical and manufacturing section of the college's engineering technologies department.
Three years ago he was awarded pound;160,000 by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for what might seem arcane research - the fluid dynamics and heat transfer mechanisms of high-pressure water sprays on hot metal surfaces.
But the work is highly relevant to the manufacture of metal plate to high safety standards for cars and girders. British Steel and Davy International have contributed a further pound;70,000. In conjunction with European partners, Dr Nasr is applying for pound;1million funding from the European Union to broaden this work.
At Croydon College, another MEG member, a quarter of the work is higher education. Lecturers teaching degree courses must demonstrate scholarly activity to the college's degree-validating universities. The college has also won a Queen's Anniversary Prize for its innovative continuous tutorial system and has done pioneering work breaking the curriculum into bite-size units of assessable work. Vic Seddon, the college's principal, said: "If in the longer run our relationships with the universities were to enable part of the college to be called University College, Croydon, then I think that would be very helpful to the area, our students and to the universities."
Suffolk College, also in MEG, has a strong research culture. It is helping to develop a virtual business school in Suffolk with pound;1m funding from Suffolk Training and Enterprise Council. It is developing a "televersity", a distance-learning university, with pound;1.4m from the European Social Fund, and is investigating early childhood stuttering with pound;75,000 from a local charitable trust.
Research began when the college's higher education work increased - it now makes up half of what it does. It became clear that there were broader opportunities for local and regional projects, said Professor Dave Muller, the college's principal designate.
"We were not trying to develop research to compete with the universities but to encourage staff to feel comfortable carrying out scholarly activities," he added.
"With something like the stuttering project, we will begin to look to develop at least a module in childhood stuttering in our early childhood studies degree. And the work of the 'televersity' will impact on our business management technology courses."
FE colleges had a strong tradition of applied research in the 1950s and 1960s. In the process of academic drift they became colleges of advanced technology (CATs), then polytechnics and finally new universities.
Ironically, the Government's demands for increases in post-16, sub-degree level FE, HND and HNC courses in IT, art and design and other areas could lead to a new academic drift and interest in applied research, and the colleges will start to resemble community polytechnics. Perhaps the academic cycle can be said to be busily reinventing the past.