Critical Masses

One of the interesting bits of news floating around academia at the moment is the announcement that my current employer (until the end of next week), Cardiff University is to join forces with the Universities of Bath, Exeter and Bristol in an alliance intended to create a ‘critical mass of knowledge’ and help Cardiff  ‘better compete for more research income’ (apparently by pretending to be in England rather than in Wales).  How successful this will be – or even what form this alliance will take – remains to be seen.

There’s been a lot of gossip about what inspired this move, but it’s not the first attempt to create a collaborative bloc of this kind. Last year five universities from the Midlands announced plans to do something similar. The “M5” group of   Birmingham, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick got together primarily to share infrastructure in order to help them win grants, which is probably what also lies behind the Cardiff-Bath-Exeter-Bristol deal.

Of course there are also a myriad  alliances at the level of individual Schools and Departments. I’ll shortly be joining the University of Sussex, which is a major player in SEPNET – the South-East Physics Physics Network which was set up with help from HEFCE There are other such networks in England, as well as SUPA in Scotland, funded by the devolved Scottish Funding Council. Attempts to form a similar arrangement for Physics in Wales were given short shrift by the Welsh Funding Agency, HEFCW. The inability or unwillingness of HEFCW to properly engage with research in Wales is no doubt behind Cardiff’s decision to seek alliances with English universities but I wonder how it will translate into funding. Surely HEFCE wouldn’t be allowed to fund a Welsh University, so presumably this is more aimed at funding from the research councils or further afield, perhaps in Europe. Or perhaps the idea is that if GW4 can persuade HEFCE to fund Bath, Bristol and Exeter, HEFCW will be shamed into stumping up something for Cardiff? Sneaky.

Anyway, good luck to the new “GW4” alliance. Although I’m moving to pastures new I’ll certainly keep an eye on any developments, and hope that they’re positive. The only thing that really disturbs me is that the name “Great Western Four” is apparently inspired by the Great Western Railway, now run by an outfit called First Great Western. My recent experiences of travelling on that have left a lot to be desired and I’m sure the name will have negative connotations in the minds of many who are fed up of their unreliable, overcrowded, overpriced and poorly managed services. They say a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but so far this is only a name – and one with a distinctly questionable odour.

4 Responses to “Critical Masses”

  1. Hopefully it turns out well! Also I’ve found the amalgamation of things like music conservatories under the umbrella of a larger university structure has always been a source of constant amusement and been more than a little questionable – at least in terms of academic protocol and relevance. I guess though university groups have more chance at success if they can mutually share resources/grants/infrastructure etc.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    “The “M5″ group of Birmingham, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick got together primarily to share infrastructure in order to help them win grants”

    Great – and how many administrators in these places will be shed in this reduction of job duplication, so that their salaries can be redeployed to research? Or will the rationalisation actually introduce an an EXTRA tier of bureaucracy, to manage the merger?

    The answer to that depends on whether the change is managed by researchers or administrators.

    • telescoper Says:

      Apparently there’s also a rival group of Midlands universities called N8, including Manchester, Liverpool, and Sheffield. It gets its name because it also includes one institution from the North.

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    The rationale behind Cardiff University joining up with an alliance of universities in Western England is beyond my comprehension. Geographical alliances between universities have usually been set up to prise more research funds out of the higher funding councils, but the Bristol-Exeter-Bath-Cardiff alliance will have to try to get money both from HEFCE and from HEFCW, two funding councils with very different outlooks. I cannot see why HEFCW would be interesting in supporting an alliance which is overwhelmingly dominated by universities outside its remit.

    This looks even more bizarre to me because the institutions that became Cardiff University were once leading members of the University of Wales, which gave a strong identity and cohesion across many different institutions. The Cardiff institutions formed Cardiff University and left the University of Wales, throwing away collaboration for a rather futile isolation. Now Cardiff University is joining an alliance in which it will be seen as inferior to the University of Bristol in research quality and perhaps comparable to Exeter. It is almost as though Cardiff management want to be regarded as second best.

    It’s really odd. Seriously odd.

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