Chapter 11 - The organisation and support of research in Oxford

I: The position of research in Oxford

Oxford's record of achievement

11.1 Oxford has a long standing record of achievement in research. In successive Research Assessment Exercises (RAEs) conducted by the national funding councils, Oxford has consistently achieved high ratings. In the 1996 RAE, 75 per cent of the University's research active staff were assessed as working in departments graded 5*, indicating that the majority of their research was judged to be of the highest international standards, and a further 17 per cent were assessed as working in grade 5 departments, denoting international quality in many areas.

11.2 Oxford has been successful in developing its arrangements for promoting technology transfer and exploiting intellectual property rights, and in establishing 'spin-off' companies whose work is based on research undertaken in the University. One recognition of success in this area has been the University's achievement in winning a Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher Education in both of the first two rounds of the prize competition (1995 and 1997), in both cases for work arising from the exploitation of the University's research base. All these developments make a major contribution to the University's international reputation, and underline the contribution it makes to the economic, social, and cultural life both of the UK and of the world as a whole.

Sources of funding for research

11.3 Most funding to support research at Oxford is channelled through the University. It comes from a range of sources. First, almost two thirds of the block grant provided to the University by HEFCE is now based on the University's performance in the Research Assessment Exercise.[133] This funding fulfils various purposes. It is the principal source of support for fundamental research in all subjects, and helps to provide the salaries of established staff and to cover the costs of buildings and other research infrastructure (such as equipment, libraries and some support staff). It is also the main source of funding for research in the humanities and social sciences. HEFCE funding in addition provides one pillar of the 'dual support' system, complementing the public funding which is channelled through the research councils and other bodies for particular programmes and projects.

11.4 In 1995-6 the University received a total of £41.8 million from the research councils. A further £31 million was received in the form of research grants and contracts awarded by charities, and a similar amount was received from other sources, including industry and commerce. Total research grant income was thus over £104 million in 1995-6.

11.5 The colleges also receive over £2 million a year in the form of research grant and contract income, and also devote substantial additional resources to the support of research; we consider their contribution more fully later in this chapter.

11.6 Under the dual support system, research council and certain other grants are intended to cover only a proportion of the costs of the research which they support. The remainder (the costs of premises and of the time of established academic staff) is expected to be covered by the general research funding received from HEFCE. It has also usually been assumed that general HEFCE research funding will cover the indirect costs associated with research income from charities, even if this is becoming less and less possible in practice.

Current funding issues

11.7 Two particular difficulties have arisen in recent years in the operation of the dual support system. The first has resulted from the shift in 1992 of some £87 million in research funding from the funding councils to the research councils.[134] The impact of this transfer has been the subject of several recent reviews.[135] The shift in funding involved resources being transferred to the research councils so that they could support a higher proportion of the indirect costs associated with projects and programmes which they fund, leaving the HEFCE research funding to cover the costs of established academic staff and premises (including laboratories) used by such projects. There is a widespread view, recently summarised in the Dearing Report (Chapter 11), that the outcome of the transfer of resources has been to increase the volume of project work being supported by the research councils, at the expense of support for basic infrastructure in universities. Thus, it is argued, academic staff are finding it necessary to work longer hours and to devote more time to research (sometimes at the expense of teaching); there is under-investment in new equipment; and a 'funding gap' has developed with total resources available through the dual support system inadequate to cover the full costs of all the research for which grants have been made. The Dearing Report gives an annual estimated figure of £110 million for the total size of this gap.[136] This problem is felt throughout higher education, but is particularly significant for Oxford because of the scale of the income it receives from the research councils.

11.8 The second difficulty stems, perhaps paradoxically, from the fact that, in recent years, Oxford has secured an increasingly large volume of grants from charities, most notably to support research in medicine and the biosciences. These grants have made a major contribution to the University's research effort, but have also brought attendant difficulties because they do not in general cover the full costs of research. The rate of increase in securing these grants has been considerable: in 1992-3 Oxford received some £19.5 million in research grants from UK charities, but by 1996-7 this had almost doubled to £34.7 million. Many charities have taken the view that the funding they provide to universities to support specific research projects falls within the terms of the dual support system, and that indirect costs can therefore reasonably be expected to be met by the University, drawing on general funding provided by HEFCE. However, HEFCE funding has not grown at the same rate as the income from charities. This has meant that additional support costs have had to be found from within the University's own resources. This problem is particularly significant in Oxford because of the large volume of research income received from charities. Although in some cases charities have provided generous grants to contribute to the costs of buildings, there remains a significant shortfall in funding.

11.9 The increasing strain on resources caused by the two developments described above needs to be addressed. There must ultimately be limits on the volume of external research grant income which can be accepted if it does not carry with it full payment for indirect costs.

11.10 The present rate of indirect cost recovery on research grants and contracts which fall wholly outside the dual support system also creates problems. Most such grants and contracts come from industry and commerce and from government and the EU. Recent data[137] shows that, in general, Oxford's overhead recovery rates from such sources are at or above the mean for the HE sector as a whole, but they are certainly still too low to cover all the indirect costs associated with such grants and contracts. The problem of inadequate recovery rates is thus not unique to Oxford, but given the volume of funds involved it is of considerable importance here.

11.11 We conclude that despite Oxford's success in attracting increasing amounts of external research grant and contract income in the last decade, and its success in the 1996 Research Assessment Exercise, the growth in research funding which does not fully cover the costs of the work involved has created problems in Oxford because it puts strains on resource allocation within the University. The University must develop more systematic mechanisms for weighing the financial implications of accepting external funds of this sort. We believe that the planning and resource allocation cycle proposed as part of our recommendations on governance in Chapter 5 and our proposals for a thorough review of Oxford's management information systems, in Chapter 6, provide the means of doing so.

The implications of growth in research funding for Oxford

11.12 Growth in external research grant income has funded the large number of academic-related research staff now employed in the University. Most of them are employed on short term contracts (sometimes on a succession of contracts) because most funding is project based. In 1996 there were over 2,000 such postholders; as noted earlier they now outnumber established academic staff. The position of this group was briefly described in Chapter 2. The size of the group and the significance of their work is important for the overall shape and structure of the University and for the balance of its work. Because of this, we think that there is a need to integrate such staff more effectively into the life of the University. We consider how this might be done later in this chapter.

11.13 Oxford's research has also been affected by the changing policies and attitudes of those bodies which provide funding. The advent of quadrennial Research Assessment Exercises organised by the national funding councils has put pressure on individual members of staff and on departments and faculties to concentrate on their research so as to maintain and enhance the quality ratings received by the University and thereby to maximise its income. There are mixed views on the impact of the Research Assessment Exercises, but most would accept that it has increased pressure to publish at regular (and for some subjects too frequent) intervals; that the pressure on individual members of staff to produce 'research output' to fit in with the timetables of Research Assessment Exercises rather than with the rhythms of their own work is intense; and that the high profile given to the ratings awarded by the funding councils (and their consequent financial implications) often focuses attention on research at the expense of other activities, and in particular of teaching.

11.14 The availability of external research grant income varies considerably from one subject area to another. This has affected the size and shape of the University. Such funding is more readily available in medicine, the life sciences, and certain other physical sciences than in many humanities and social science subjects. In part - but only in part - this reflects the relative costs of research in different subjects. Growth in external research grant income has in turn affected financial and organisational structures in different subject areas, and the balance between teaching and research within them. These issues are not confined to Oxford, but particular concerns have been expressed to us about the relationship between teaching and research in different subject areas, and about the need not to allow research to obscure the importance of teaching within Oxford.

11.15 We do not believe that it is sensible to prescribe an appropriate 'balance' between teaching and research across the University as a whole. The proper balance rightly varies from one subject area to another, since the relationship between teaching and research itself varies. In some areas, research has a more immediate impact on teaching than in others: for example equipment primarily intended for research purposes may also be used in teaching in some subjects. In almost all cases there are considerable advantages both for undergraduate and for graduate students in being able to study at an institution with a high level of research activity, since it enables students to gain an appreciation of the nature and methods of research and to be taught by those who are doing research. The importance of ensuring that graduate students are taught at institutions with a strong research base was emphasised by the recent Harris report on Postgraduate Education,[138] which considered the advantages of ensuring that research students in particular work in successful research departments. We believe that the point also holds for undergraduate work. It is possible in a research university to expose students to the culture, methods, and materials of research at a much earlier stage in their academic career than would otherwise be the case and for them to use advanced equipment or have access to many specialist journals. Since almost all those who teach in Oxford also do research they can communicate the critical methods and approaches of research to their students.

11.16 Thus one of Oxford's strengths is that its teaching and research support and stimulate each other. The key challenge for Oxford is to find modes of governance which bring this elementary point to bear on decisions, and so link academic priorities effectively to the allocation of resources. The proposals on governance set out in Chapter 5 offer a means of achieving this. One of the most important responsibilities of the proposed academic boards should be to keep under review questions about the balance between teaching and research, and to take explicit account of this balance in the annual planning cycle. In this way, the respective needs of teaching and research, and the balances to be struck between them in particular areas, can be addressed more systematically than at present.

Recommendation 74
We recommend that the academic boards should keep under review the balance of teaching and research in the subject areas under their aegis, as part of their long term planning responsibilities.

II: The organisation and support of research in Oxford

Organisational structures

11.17 Research within Oxford is supported both by the University and by the colleges. All university lecturers, readers and professors are expected to teach and to undertake research. As we have noted, a further important contribution is made by academic-related research staff, employed by the University, who are expected to devote all or most of their time to research. Many college employed staff also do research, even if some of them are not contractually required to do so. The organisational framework in which research is undertaken varies considerably from one subject area to another. For example, the pattern of research in equipment-intensive and departmentally organised science subjects is very different from research in many humanities disciplines, which may lack a departmental focus, which depend heavily on library and archival resources, and where research is often undertaken and supported by colleges.

11.18 Oxford also has a number of centres or institutes which are focused primarily or solely on research. One example of an innovative approach to the support of research is the Institute of Molecular Medicine, which has been established since the mid-1980s as part of the Clinical Medical School to foster research in molecular and cell biology. The Institute is jointly funded by the University, the MRC and several charities; it houses thirteen independent research groups, most of them linked to one of the University's clinical departments. The benefits of the arrangement are that the Institute fosters close integration of the work of basic and clinical scientists and has created a critical mass of scientific expertise and facilities which no individual department could support. Other examples of special arrangements to support research in Oxford include the Institute of Health Sciences, the Oxford Centre for Molecular Sciences the Centre for Criminological Research, and the European Humanities Research Centre.

11.19 Whilst their organisational structures vary, such centres provide a focal point which brings together researchers in different disciplines from different departments. They can also more readily support the cost of expensive research equipment than can individual departments. Some of these centres have been established by the University with the specific aim of fostering interdisciplinary research across existing departmental or faculty boundaries. Others are organised through colleges; our consultation showed that eight colleges supported identifiable research centres of one kind or another, and that there was a total of 18 such collegiate centres in Oxford. They include eight centres for regional studies based at St Antony's and four management related research centres at Templeton. Six colleges supported a single centre.

11.20 There are other institutes which are neither part of the University nor of a college, but which have some association with the University and foster research in Oxford. One example is the Institute of Virology, which focuses exclusively on research; others are the Centres for Hebrew Studies and for Islamic Studies which undertake both teaching and research. There is also a range of other research-based activity in and around Oxford, which benefits from links with the University. Examples include the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, and 'spin-off' companies established in the local area which are based on university expertise.

11.21 We have considered whether Oxford might benefit from encouraging the development of research institutes which lie outside established departmental structures, in particular to support interdisciplinary work. While noting the considerable success of some self standing research institutes both within the University and associated with it, we do not believe that there is any general case for the expansion of this model. Successful research institutes most commonly draw their strength from their links with relevant university departments, with colleges, or with members of faculties working in related fields. Without such close relationships, research institutes outside existing structures will have less chance of success and it is unlikely that they would make the most of what Oxford has to offer. Moreover, research conducted in universities draws on a number of distinct advantages. These include the relatively swift turnover of postdoctoral staff, and of research students who bring a valuable freshness of approach. Relationships with other departments are also often important for long term research success. In considering any proposals for the establishment of free standing research institutes the loss of these advantages would have to be weighed. On balance we believe that there are strong arguments in favour of research being conducted in a university environment, and moreover within faculties and departments which also undertake teaching.

11.22 This conclusion is reinforced by considering other aspects of fostering interdisciplinary research. Boundaries between different disciplines are always shifting and overlapping, and it is difficult to foresee what linkages may be most valuable except in the short term. Hence it is important that organisational structures should not inhibit interdisciplinarity. The University must have in place an administrative structure which enables departmental or faculty boundaries to be crossed or modified when this is appropriate, along with resource allocation methods which are flexible enough to allow transfers of funds when this is desirable on academic grounds. The best safeguard of interdisciplinarity is to set research within a university environment where departments and faculties covering many different disciplines work in close proximity, and where there is sufficient information and contact between those working in different disciplines. Oxford has particular advantages in this respect because the colleges can provide additional and systematic opportunities for academic staff and graduate students to meet others working in different subject areas. The colleges should, in our view, ensure that the most is made of these opportunities.

11.23 Interdisciplinary work also needs formal institutional support. We believe that the bodies best placed to ensure that the University links research in different areas are the three academic boards whose establishment is proposed in Chapter 5. One of their key roles would be to encourage interdepartmental and inter-faculty liaison, and to remove any artificial institutional boundaries which inhibit the development of research. The responsibilities we propose for the academic boards have been chosen with this objective in mind.

Recommendation 75
We recommend that the academic boards should assume responsibility for promoting inter-departmental and inter-faculty liaison in the development of research.

The humanities and social sciences

11.24 We have specifically considered the organisation of research in the humanities and social science subjects in Oxford. At present, patterns of support on the University side are varied, and the colleges often play a particularly important role. The University has recently supported several research initiatives in the humanities and social sciences; these include the development of the European Humanities Research Centre, the Institute of American Studies, and the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents. These provide examples of how new organisational structures are developing to support research in the humanities and social sciences in order to supplement existing provision. The contribution of the colleges is also of great significance. For example both Nuffield and St Antony's Colleges were to a considerable extent established to foster research in the social sciences. As noted above, a number of other colleges have also established their own research centres in particular subjects.

11.25 Some of these developments may reflect a desire on the part of those working in the humanities and social sciences for a single physical base for their subjects. The University is moving towards providing new facilities to support research in the humanities and social sciences: examples include developments on the Ashmolean site in order to support provision in Classics; moves to locate all Social Studies facilities on the St Cross site; and plans to develop further facilities there for Law. Other facilities include the Philosophy centre, the Modern Languages faculty centre, and the centres for Theology, Music, and the History of Art.

11.26 Nonetheless, there remain gaps in the provision of facilities to underpin research in the humanities, most notably for the faculties of English and Modern History, two of the largest in the University. Each has a faculty library, but lacks adequate supplementary facilities such as office space, seminar rooms or social facilities. The lack of common space particularly inhibits the development of collaborative projects in these disciplines. This is important given that the British Academy's Humanities Research Board earmarks a proportion of its research funds for collaborative projects, and Oxford risks being at a serious disadvantage in competing for them.

11.27 We therefore believe that the University should develop faculty centres and analogous facilities to support these two subjects. Faculty centres which provide seminar rooms, offices, library space and other facilities support academic and social contact between those working in a particular subject area; they supplement and complement support currently provided by colleges. We see no grounds for thinking that such developments would in any way undermine the role of the colleges: there is no evidence for example that this has occurred in those subject areas in the humanities and social sciences where faculty centres already exist. There was strong support for such developments from most of those working in relevant subjects who responded to the staff survey which we conducted in Hilary Term 1996.[139]

11.28 We have noted that the Working Party on University Sites, which was chaired by the present Vice-Chancellor, and whose report was submitted to Council in July 1997 (and discussed in Chapter 3), has made a recommendation along the lines of the approach adopted in the previous paragraph. We endorse this recommendation, and urge that high priority be given to further development of faculty centres and analogous provision to support subjects in the humanities and social sciences, and in particular to address the needs of the faculties of English and Modern History.

Recommendation 76
We recommend that the Council and the academic board for humanities and social sciences should give high priority to the further development of faculty centres to support the humanities and social sciences, and especially to the improvement of facilities for researchers in the faculties of English and Modern History.

11.29 Finally, we are aware of the importance of library resources for research in the humanities. Oxford has in the Bodleian Library one of the richest collections of material available anywhere in the world. However, in recent years the organisation of the Bodleian's services has caused problems and the attractiveness of Oxford for researchers in the humanities has been questioned. We are aware of the plans of the recently appointed Director of University Library Services and Bodley's Librarian to improve the position and urge that progress be formally reviewed by the Council in 18 months time.

III: Planning and resource allocation in support of research

Current arrangements

11.30 Thirty years ago, the Franks Report recommended[140] that the General Board should establish a committee on research, which, as well as administering research and equipment funds, would also deal with research planning and research policy, and would oversee liaison with external bodies which fund research. The General Board now has a Research and Equipment Committee, but in practice it has rarely undertaken such a wide ranging role. For example, in its report to the Board on 6 June 1995, the committee noted that the broader aspects of its remit were rarely fulfilled. It noted that the first item of its terms of reference read:

'to identify and bring to the attention of the General Board with recommendations where appropriate:

  • long term trends in research which should influence University policy;
  • specific areas of promise which justified particular attention;
  • changes in research council policy and other matters likely to have a significant effect on support for research;
  • changes in the overall balance between teaching and research in the University'.

11.31 The committee further noted that 'this item [of our terms of reference] is hardly ever considered, in part because of the lack of flow of such information to the committee, but also because its business is dominated by the management of the equipment and research budgets'. In our view, the committee has been right to draw attention to these shortcomings, and is equally right in its suggestion that steps should be taken to remedy them.

11.32 Similar concerns were reflected in the report (submitted to Council in 1996) of the Review Committee on Technology Transfer Arrangements, prepared under the chairmanship of the President of Wolfson College. Section IX of that report noted that the review committee 'has frequently referred...to the perceived absence of mechanisms for determining strategic policy in matters relating to research. While such questions may have been considered ad hoc by relevant University bodies, we hope that the Commission of Inquiry will consider whether the University needs a more integrated and coherent approach to its various activities relevant to research'.

11.33 We consulted all faculty board chairmen and heads of department about these concerns. There was a division of opinion in the responses received between those who regarded it as vital that the University develop more coherent and explicit strategies governing the future direction of research and the consequent allocation of resources, and those who had fewer immediate concerns about competition for resources (perhaps because their research needed few additional resources), and who placed much higher emphasis on preserving what they saw as their individual or departmental autonomy.

11.34 The former view was expressed most strongly by many of those working in clinical medicine, the life sciences, and the physical sciences. It was argued that, given the increasing competition for resources, the University must find better ways of determining its priorities, and that failure to do so would make it more difficult for the University to develop new areas of research or to wind down others. The view was expressed that some central involvement in settling academic priorities and allocating resources was essential to prevent fossilisation, as well as to encourage new areas of research and interdisciplinary approaches, which might not be promoted by individual departments and faculties.

11.35 Similar points were also often forcefully expressed by those external funding bodies we consulted. One chief executive of an external body commented:

'In my two years as a chief executive all the top research universities in which my organisation has a substantial investment have engaged me in high level discussions concerning their strategy for the future. There is one exception: Oxford. I do not know whether or not Oxford has a vision for its future in my field, but if such a vision exists it has not been communicated to me.'

A new approach to research strategy

11.36 We suggested in Chapters 4 and 5 that the University should develop a more effective approach to planning and resource allocation in support of research. Lacking an overall long term strategic view of the desired direction of future developments in research, the University has often found it difficult to reach decisions on the allocation of resources to support particular proposals, and has frequently had to react to proposals from outside instead of being in a position to develop its own and to influence the policies of external bodies.

11.37 Planning research at the strategic level which we advocate would not interfere with the ability of faculties, departments, and individual academic staff to determine the direction and focus of their own research. Our consultation within the University revealed a widely held view that the initiative in determining research priorities should not be subjected to a cumbersome or bureaucratic planning regime. This is not what we have in mind. What we are proposing is a process which would enable those involved in research (whether individuals, departments, faculties, or colleges), to contribute to the development of long term strategies for research in their subjects, and linking these strategies to more immediate decisions on resource allocation.

11.38 We therefore think that the University's central bodies need to take a more coherent approach to establishing and supporting strategic priorities for research. They need to exercise a greater degree of initiative in establishing policy priorities in matters affecting research, and to link these more closely to procedures for allocating resources.

11.39 These responsibilities would most effectively be exercised through the proposed annual planning and resource allocation cycle which we discussed in Chapter 5. The cycle proposed requires the three academic boards to submit to the Council rolling five year plans and annual operating statements. These would contain within them costed plans for the development of research activity, against which resources could be allocated. This would then enable the Council's Planning and Resource Allocation Committee to make recommendations which took full account of the priorities of those working in different subject areas and of the anticipated costs of the proposals. Since all such proposals would then be considered side by side, rather than individually as they arose, it is more likely that the criteria applied to decision-making would be consistent, and that the overall pattern which emerged from individual decisions would reflect an agreed policy.

Recommendation 77
We recommend that the University should develop a long-term strategic policy for the development of research in all subject areas. This would in turn influence the allocation of resources for the support of research. Responsibility for overseeing the development of a strategic policy for the support of research should rest with the Council, drawing on costed proposals made by the academic boards through the annual planning cycle, with boards in turn being responsible for consulting their own constituent departments and faculties, and for liaising with colleges.

Resource allocation in support of research

11.40 Most of the money available to the University for allocation, at its own discretion, to support research is at present distributed to the General Board, and thence to faculties and departments through the main annual resource allocation exercise. It supports established academic postholders, certain departmental research posts, the provision of space and equipment, and other support facilities such as libraries and computing facilities. We have concluded that, under the proposed new planning and resource allocation cycle discussed in Chapter 5, this approach should continue. This would mean that the bulk of the general funds available to the University to support research would be allocated by the Council to the three academic boards. We also believe that as high as possible a proportion of the direct and indirect costs of research should be borne by the boards, thus making the full costs of research more transparent.

11.41 There are also a number of other routes whereby funding in support of research is currently distributed within the University. In particular, the General Board's Research and Equipment Committee provides three kinds of grants outside the main resource allocation methods. They are:

  • Non-recurrent equipment grants: these support the acquisition of equipment the purchase of which is unlikely to be eligible for funding from other sources, or which will be in part funded externally, but which requires some matching funding from the University.
  • The special research grant scheme: this provides three sorts of awards: pump-priming research grants intended to support promising new developments at an early stage; emergency research grants, intended to help support promising research projects which fall into serious short term difficulties; and special short term dual support grants for the humanities where funds are not obtainable from any of the research councils.
  • A bridging support scheme: this supports the employment of members of academic-related contract research staff where there is a gap between the ending of one research contract and the start of the next.

11.42 These schemes have all proved extremely valuable, notwithstanding the recent pressure on resources available to support them as a result of the substantial reductions in HEFCE equipment funding in 1995-7.[141] Our view is that responsibility for administering these schemes (and for the resources which support them) should be devolved to the three academic boards discussed in Chapter 5. The needs of those working in the principal subject areas covered by the boards vary, and differing schemes may be appropriate for different subjects - a point already recognised to some extent by the General Board's Research and Equipment Committee in its schemes. Each of the three boards would be able to review the present schemes in the light of the needs and priorities of their own subject areas; to tailor them or develop them as appropriate; and to consider whether to expand present schemes and develop wholly new ones. The boards would also themselves be able to balance the case for diverting resources to special schemes of this sort, or for allocating funds for other purposes.

Recommendation 78
We recommend that responsibility for administering the special research grant schemes, bridging support schemes, and other research grant schemes currently administered by the General Board should be devolved to the three academic boards, which should be required to review present practice and consider how it might best be developed.

11.43 We also believe that there is a strong case for the establishment of a research development fund, held at the centre under the aegis of the Council's Planning and Resource Allocation Committee, to which faculties and departments could apply if they wished to undertake new developments which could not otherwise be funded. This would be used to encourage new initiatives and interdisciplinary work which could not readily be funded from within the three academic boards' budgets.

11.44 The details of how such a fund would operate, and of its size, would need further consideration by the Council and the academic boards. The criteria for the award of grants, methods of application to the fund, and the types of expenditure which grants would be expected to cover would also need to be worked out. We have not addressed these detailed points ourselves, but believe that there is a sound general case for such a fund which should be recognised.

Recommendation 79
We recommend that the Council should establish a university research development fund, to fund new initiatives proposed by departments and faculties for which funding would not otherwise be available.

IV: Relationships with outside funding agencies

11.45 The allocation to the Council and the academic boards of responsibility for developing long term strategic policies to support research would represent a substantial improvement in present arrangements. An equally important element in their work would be maintenance of good relationships with external funders of research at Oxford (such as the research councils, charities, industry and commerce, government departments, the EU, etc).

11.46 This need to maintain good relationships reflects both the size of the sums of money now being attracted from such bodies (£104 million in 1995-6) and the way in which external funding agencies themselves are seeking to conduct their relationships with universities. Charities and research councils, and to some extent industrial and commercial sponsors, are increasingly seeking to develop their relationships with universities at a strategic level, and decisions whether to support individual research projects may depend on that broader strategic relationship. Funding bodies often expect universities to have in place strategic policies for research, and may regard the development of such policies as a pre-requisite of funding.

11.47 Oxford's researchers in general maintain excellent relationships with external bodies supporting their research, but it is less clear that Oxford has been as successful in developing effective relationships at an institutional level, which would enable it to discuss the strategic direction which its research might take. One of the strongest messages which we received from those outside Oxford whom we consulted was that the University needed to devote more attention to managing its relations with external bodies which fund research, and that this would be essential if it wished to maintain research funding at present levels and to make the most of new opportunities.

11.48 Criticism of Oxford's present approach was not unanimous: industrial companies whose dealings were with specific departments or individuals within the University, with whom they had developed good direct relationships, were usually content with Oxford's present approach. Dissatisfaction tended to be expressed by the larger scale funders, who argued that Oxford lacked clear leadership in research at institutional level, and tended not to provide an overall strategic framework for the management and organisation of research. A particular concern was that it was not always easy to know who could speak authoritatively on behalf of the University on these questions, nor with whom to engage in strategic discussion.

11.49 A number of internal respondents to consultation, particularly those working in clinical medicine and the life sciences, argued that the University should appoint a senior figure who had the time and authority to liaise directly with major external funding agencies. At present, only the Vice-Chancellor carries this role, but this is but one of many demands upon his time. It was suggested that the University needs another senior figure or figures to act in this capacity if it is to gain maximum benefit from external funders.

11.50 These varied arguments need to be set against the background of the University's considerable successes in attracting research funding from external agencies. As we have noted, the volume of external research grant income received by Oxford is higher than that at any other UK university, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of total income.[142] Nor do we wish to suggest that the University should simply adapt its own practices to meet the demands of external agencies, regardless of what they may be. Nonetheless, we have concluded that a new approach is needed: it is in the University's own interest to develop mechanisms to deal as effectively as possible with external funding agencies, to promote its interests in dialogue with them, and to ensure that opportunities for obtaining funding to support work which fits the University's own strategic priorities are grasped.

11.51 In our view the changes to the University's structure of governance proposed in Chapter 5 provide the key to meeting these objectives. Through the planning and resource allocation process which we propose, different parts of the University will have established the policies and priorities which will then form the basis for discussions with external agencies. Furthermore, the lead in managing relationships with external agencies would fall to the Deputy Vice-Chancellors whom we propose should chair each of the three academic boards. They would assume responsibility for liaising with external agencies at the highest level, engaging them in strategic discussions, setting out the University's own agreed policies and priorities; they would (where appropriate and in consultation with their boards) be able to make commitments on behalf the University. In cases where the work of a single external body straddled the interests of more than one academic board, it would be necessary to identify a 'lead board' which took responsibility for coordinating liaison.

Recommendation 80
We recommend that the academic boards should be given primary responsibility for developing relationships with external funding agencies; and particular responsibility for conducting such relationships should rest with the Deputy Vice-Chancellors chairing each of the three boards, who should regard this as an important part of their duties.

V: The role of the colleges in research

11.52 The important (if often underestimated) role of the colleges in fostering research has been mentioned at several points in this chapter. In this section we draw attention to the distinctive contribution to research made by the colleges. College support for research complements that provided by University departments and faculties, and represents one of the strengths of Oxford's research effort.

11.53 One of the most significant contributions made by colleges in support of research comes through their provision of a high proportion of the salaries of academic staff holding joint appointments as well as the full costs of certain staff engaged in research. A survey of colleges which we undertook in 1996 also gave further details of other ways in which colleges support research. For example, almost all colleges provide direct financial support for the research of senior members, research fellows, and graduate research students. Such support varies in scale, but may include some form of academic allowance for senior members, book allowances and contributions to research expenses and attendance at conferences. Colleges also commonly provide grants to senior members for computer purchase, and most provide computing support for their senior members and graduate research students. This may include networked computing facilities and specialist computing rooms, and sometimes a full-time computing officer.

11.54 Colleges also make an important contribution to research in Oxford through the provision of junior research fellowships and other research fellowships. Our survey of colleges suggested that at any one time colleges collectively support some 110 stipendiary junior research fellowships, and over 100 non-stipendiary junior research fellowships, as well as over 60 other stipendiary and 80 other non-stipendiary research fellowships.

11.55 We have noted that many colleges liaise closely with relevant departments or faculties in considering the appointment of a junior research fellow in a particular subject. Especially in the experimental sciences, where departmental facilities may be needed by a research fellow, we believe that this cooperation should be encouraged, and that all colleges should liaise with the relevant department or faculty in the selection of junior research fellows, not least to ensure that the facilities required will be available. Such cooperation can also be valuable in other disciplines where there may be no immediate call upon departmental or faculty facilities.

Recommendation 81
We recommend that colleges and departments or faculty boards, as appropriate, should liaise closely in the selection of junior research fellows and in ensuring that the necessary resources and facilities are available to support them.

11.56 We have surveyed the extent of colleges' external research grant and contract income. During the year 1996, a total of over £2 million was reported by colleges collectively as external research grant and contract income. Although far less than the sums administered through the University, this is still a significant amount.

11.57 We have seen earlier in this chapter that a number of colleges support specialist research centres, there being 18 such centres in all. These make a major contribution to the research environment in Oxford. They provide both additional resources for work in particular subjects, and also a collegiate base for researchers working in those areas. We welcome this collegiate contribution to the research activity of the University; indeed in a number of instances, the college centre is effectively the only research centre in the discipline in Oxford. Anxiety has, however, been expressed to us over the development of both University and college (even intercollegiate) centres in closely related disciplines. Such duplication of activity might imply less than optimal use of Oxford's resources. The problem is the greater when a new centre is established without adequate liaison with an existing research centre, whether college or University based.

11.58 Thus while we believe that the establishment of research centres in colleges should be welcomed. However we also think that the best way forward lies in ensuring proper liaison between the college and the University department, or indeed between colleges. We believe that, when colleges develop centres of this sort, it is important that they should do so in close cooperation with the relevant faculty or department, so as to ensure that resources are not duplicated, and to avoid the possibility of conflicts of interests developing.

Recommendation 82
We recommend that colleges should ensure that they liaise closely with appropriate faculties and departments in developing plans for college-based research centres.

VI: Staffing issues

Introduction

11.59 We have already, in Chapter 2, drawn attention to the substantial increase over the last 30 years in the number of academic-related research staff in Oxford, commonly known as 'contract research staff'. Such staff are employed on academic-related terms and conditions in order to undertake and support research in the University. We have seen that their total number is over 2,000 (making them the largest single group of staff in Oxford), and the vast majority of them (some 90 per cent) are employed on fixed-term contracts in posts which are usually supported from outside grants. Almost 500 of these staff were submitted as 'research active' in the 1996 RAE. Their work has thus contributed directly to the University's success in that exercise. We have also noted that 25 senior academic-related research staff have been awarded the title of professor or reader in the University's recent distinctions exercises.

11.60 The position of 'contract research staff' has been under discussion for some time. Concerns have been expressed about their status, and about whether the contribution they make to Oxford's work is sufficiently well recognised. One question is whether they are properly integrated into faculty and departmental life. Another arises from Oxford's collegiate structure: most research staff have no college membership, let alone a fellowship, and do not have access to the academic, social and other facilities which colleges can provide. There is also particular concern that research staff employed on a succession of fixed-term contracts lack security of employment and an appropriate career path. The Oxford AUT has produced a survey of the position of contract research staff employed by the University which drew attention to many of these points, and which was submitted to us in June 1996.

11.61 In considering these points we have noted, first, that academic-related research staff are not a uniform group. At one end of the spectrum are senior and often very distinguished researchers, perhaps holding prestigious awards allocated to them (usually on a personal basis) by bodies such as the Royal Society, or the British Academy or research councils. Individuals in this category, who may have professorial status, are usually employed on the highest of the research grades (RSIV or above). They number about 45. A second group are the holders of outside grant funded fixed-term posts in the senior grades (RSII, RSIIX and RSIII) who are often themselves well established researchers, perhaps acting as principal investigators holding research grants in their own right, and managing research teams. There are about 300 individuals in this group.

11.62 The third and largest group of academic-related research staff, totalling about 1,400, are those employed as postdoctoral research workers, usually in grade RSIA and working as part of a research team. Some of those in this group may in practice be long-term University employees, working on a succession of fixed-term contracts but with little prospect of career progression within Oxford. Others may be in the immediate postdoctoral phase of their careers, intending to undertake one period of employment in such a post before either moving on to a more permanent academic appointment or leaving higher education altogether. Those in the postdoctoral phase may include very able young researchers who will in due course go on to lead their profession.

11.63 Concerns associated with the position of each of these groups - and especially that of the immediate postdoctoral contract research staff - are by no means confined to Oxford. They affect all leading research universities. Recognition of this led to the formulation of a 'Concordat to Provide a Framework for the Career Management of Contract Research Staff in Universities and Colleges', which was developed in 1995-6 by the CVCP (renamed Universities UK from 1.12.2000) in conjunction with the research councils, the Royal Society and the British Academy. The Concordat has been welcomed by the University, which has gone on to develop its own Oxford 'Code of Practice for the Employment and Career Management of Contract Research Staff'. This was approved by Council and the General Board during 1996.[143]

Proposals for new initiatives

11.64 We have nonetheless concluded that further steps are needed to address concerns about the position of contract research staff. First, the University has already committed itself to arranging a college association for all holders British Academy postdoctoral research fellowships, with colleges in each case agreeing to provide appropriate facilities for the fellow. We believe that a similar approach should be extended to other holders of analogous postdoctoral posts including Royal Society research fellows, Wellcome Trust principal fellows, British Heart Foundation fellows, and holders of research council advanced fellowships. The total additional number of individuals involved at any one time would be of the order of 30-40, which whilst not inconsiderable represents a number which colleges collectively should be able to absorb.

Recommendation 83
We recommend that the academic boards should, through the Conference of Colleges or otherwise, seek to arrange college association for holders of Royal Society research fellowships and analogous awards.

11.65 Secondly, we have noted that the University's decrees have recently been amended so that research staff in non-established posts are eligible for membership of departmental committees.[144] We welcome this modest but important step in involving such staff more closely with the work of their department, enabling them to contribute more effectively to its running. In our view further steps should be taken in this direction, including steps to permit membership of faculties to be available to such research staff. At present there appear to be no clear criteria governing whether research staff are elected into faculty membership, and the extent to which they are varies between faculties. We believe that, in those cases where research staff are engaged in teaching (and our survey of Hilary Term 1996 suggested that this was fairly common), such staff should be considered for election to faculties.

Recommendation 84
We recommend that academic-related research staff who undertake teaching for the University or for a college should be considered for election to faculty membership.

11.66 Thirdly, we have considered the range of social and sporting facilities available to contract research staff. Some colleges already invite a limited number of postdoctoral researchers into membership of either their senior common rooms or middle common rooms, opening up a range of facilities to them. In other cases, some facilities (usually a common room with refreshments available throughout the day) are provided by individual departments, although smaller departments may lack suitable accommodation. The University also supports the University Club, whose primary purpose is to provide facilities for non-academic staff. This club represents a merger of the facilities provided by Halifax House and the former Mansfield Road Club. It functions as a social centre open to all University staff, aiming to provide some of the facilities available to the members of senior common rooms of colleges. These include cafeteria meals, special lunches and dinners on certain days, common rooms (with newspapers, periodicals and television), a games room and guest bedrooms. Guest night dinners and other social events are held frequently. Sporting and social facilities for all staff of the University, including lunches and bar facilities, are provided on the Mansfield Road sports ground.

11.67 In recent years there has been considerable discussion about the further development of the University Club, and various schemes have been proposed. No further development has, however, yet taken place. We understand the present position to be that the need is clearly recognised but that planning, both financial and architectural, is at an early stage.

11.68 In considering how improvements might be made in the provision of social and other facilities available for academic-related research staff within the University, we have examined a number of options. These are:

(i) The development of further departmental social facilities.

(ii) Encouraging colleges to elect more contract research staff into membership of senior and middle common rooms.

(iii) Additional development of the University Club.

11.69 We do not think that there is much scope for tackling the problem through the first option of the further development of facilities on a departmental basis. Those departments which can provide common room facilities for their staff already do so; and if each individual department sought to develop further such facilities there would be unnecessary duplication of effort. Nor is it practicable to expect smaller departments to allocate the space or resources required to support them.

11.70 In the case of the second option (election of more contract research staff to college membership), we believe that more could be done once there is a greater realisation of the nature of the problem. However we also recognise that the costs of such an approach, and the practical constraints on space which affect the capacity of membership of most common rooms, will limit how far it is possible to follow this route. Nonetheless, we would encourage colleges to look sympathetically at the possibility of electing contract research staff into membership of their senior common or middle common rooms as appropriate, depending on the status, age, and contribution to teaching and research of the individuals in question. We believe that the Conference of Colleges can play an important role in assessing how far progress can be made here, in consultation in particular with science and medicine departments.

Recommendation 85
We recommend that the Conference of Colleges, the Committee of Heads of Science Departments and the academic boards should establish a joint working party to consider how far contract research staff could be brought more fully into contact with college life.

11.71 Whilst useful progress may be made through these first two options, we are clear that the third one (further development of central facilities by the University) must also be pursued. We have concluded that a high priority now needs to be given to developing the social and sporting facilities available for academic-related and non-academic staff. Centralised facilities of this sort are likely to prove the most financially viable way of providing substantial social and sporting facilities for contract research staff as well as for those other staff groups who currently use them.

Recommendation 86
We recommend that the Council should give high priority to the re-development of facilities for academic-related and non-academic staff currently provided through the University Club.

11.72 Finally, we believe that a rather more radical and broader-based approach to the position of contract research staff also needs to be considered. Twice in the post war period Oxford has addressed similar questions relating to disadvantaged groups of staff - in both cases academic staff without college fellowships. The first solution, in the 1960s, was the establishment of new societies such as St Cross College and Wolfson College (originally Iffley College). The second development, in the 1980s, was to ensure election to college fellowships of academic staff entitled to, but without, such fellowships. The solution here was, primarily, achieved by the colleges' willingness to elect into fellowships all those eligible.

11.73 Another approach to a similar question has been the creation of a new society, Kellogg College (formerly Rewley House), where the college closely complements the functions of a University department, in this case Continuing Education. Templeton College might be regarded as exemplifying a variant on this approach: it has recently developed into full collegiate status, having for many years combined the roles of providing post-experience management education with that of a developing collegiate society encompassing academic staff and others. Whilst we doubt the practicality of providing membership of existing colleges for all the contract research staff who have no current college membership, we do believe that the approach of developing new collegiate societies warrants careful consideration.

11.74 We therefore propose that the University should consider the establishment of new collegiate communities specifically aimed at postdoctoral research staff. We believe that there is scope for developing this model for some subjects in the same way as it has been developed through Kellogg College or Templeton College, respectively, for Continuing Education and Management Studies. The aim would be to provide a social as well as an academic base for those working in particular fields.

Recommendation 87
We recommend that the Council should consider developing new collegiate communities to provide a social and academic base for academic-related research staff, and should establish a working party to address this issue.