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Third of professors would quit UK over research row, warns poll

7 January 2010

The United Kingdom risks a brain drain of top professors if it pushes ahead with controversial changes to how university research is funded, warns a survey released today by UCU.

Over a third (35%) of professors polled said they would consider pursuing their academic career abroad if the plans were introduced.

The poll further warned that more than one in five (22%) professors already knew a colleague who was also considering leaving the country over the issue. The survey gives a stark insight into the likely impact the new proposals would have on jobs. Half (49%) the professors polled said they thought the changes would influence their department's hiring and firing plans.

Over two-thirds (69%) said they opposed the changes, which will limit government funding for curiosity-driven research. The controversial proposals, announced by Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), would force 25% of future research to be assessed on 'economic impacts'. The plans have been condemned by the academic community as an attack on curiosity-driven research. UCU said if researchers had been operating under the new guidelines many crucial discoveries would have been missed.

The poll of professors found:

  • over two-thirds (69%) did not support the impact proposals
  • over a third (35%) would consider pursuing their academic career abroad if the changes were introduced
  • one in five (22%) said they knew colleagues planning to leave the country if the changes were introduced
  • half (49%) said the proposals would influence the hiring and firing of staff in their department
  • almost three-quarters (72%) said the changes, if introduced, would lead to changes in policies and practices in their department
  • almost two-thirds (65%) said they thought the proposals would alter the focus and practice of research in their department.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'We should be working hard to attract the finest minds to Britain, not implementing new rules that will drive them away. History has taught us that some of the biggest breakthroughs have come from speculative research and it is wrong to try and measure projects purely on their economic potential. We believe the new system would strangle talent and destroy initiative.

'Half the professors polled think that their department's hiring and firing plans will be influenced by the changes. With the higher education sector now facing the biggest cuts seen in a generation, the last thing we need is to lose the brightest and the best through a failure to support their work.'

In December the union handed in a submission to HEFCE outlining its concerns over the proposals. It also handed in a petition with almost 18,000 signatures that came from the full range of academic disciplines and included six Nobel Prize winners and over 3,000 professors.

UCU produced a report that looks in greater detail at how some of our most crucial breakthroughs would not have been discovered without curiosity-driven research. Download the report here:  (.pdf) file type icon Discoveries that would not survive the REF (.pdf) [84kb]

Signatories to the UCU petition included Sir Tim Hunt (Nobel Prize winner); Sir John Walker (Nobel Prize winner); Sir Harold Kroto (Nobel Prize winner); Sir Richard Roberts (Nobel Prize winner); Professor Brian Josephson (Nobel Prize winner); Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (Nobel Prize winner); Professor Richard Dawkins; Professor Denis Noble; Professor Steven Rose; Professor Steve Jones; Professor Don Braben Professor John Dainton; (all scientists); Professor Fritz Ursell; Sir John Ball (both Mathematics); Sir Tony Wrigley; Dame Janet Nelson (both History); Professor Jonathan Glover; Professor James Ladyman (Philosophy); Professor T J Clark (Art History); Professor Allyson Pollock (Public Policy); Professor Richard Sennett (Sociology).

Notes

UCU polled 589 professors between 9 December and 21 December 2009 online. You can download a summary of the results:  (.pdf) file type icon REF professor poll summary results, Dec 09 (.pdf) [35kb]

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