Monday, September 01, 2014

Day 53 - Changing Face of Research

Today, I'm not really talking about the actual way that the sector is changing. I don't really think I have enough experience to discuss that. It's more that I want to talk about how the way that my institution is thinking about changing things.

Currently, we have six different centres for research based around English and Creative Writing, Publishing, Design, Media, Music, and Film respectively. Some of these research groups coincide with departmental (and therefore managerial) hierarchies, but not all. Some of these research groups coincide with REF Units of Assessment, but not all. Some of these centres have defined identities that function almost as a brand, others are more amorphous.

For me, looking at these groups, it seems clear that some of these groups are built around areas of excellence, where a clear specialism has been identified, but others are there to support research activity irrespective of any top-down strategic thought. I think that both approaches have their place, but that they shouldn't be confused.

Recently, we discussed the possibility of reshaping research areas into four: Music and Performing Arts, Art and Design, English and Creative Writing, and Media. I think that it's likely that existing 'brands' will remain as centres of activity, but not necessarily centres of support. From my perspective, this is a good move, and it means that it will be easier to develop a narrative around Music, Drama, and Performing Arts for the next REF in 2020. It also addresses the confusion (mentioned above) between areas of excellence/activity, and areas of research support. Although it means that more research areas will not map on to department areas, I don't think that this will lead to more problems, but may well alleviate areas where this is an issue.

This isn't just a matter of achieving consistency, but it's a matter of achieving parity. If there are many areas where the person in charge of the research centre is not necessarily the person managing the staff within the research centre, then there has to be a protocol or shared practice for including research in their workload, rather than the rather piece-meal approach we have at present. At least that's what I'd like to think.

While there are potential drawbacks to this approach (I will have more staff to support but no more time to do it in, for example; I will also have to liaise with at least two line managers rather than one) but I believe that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

It is somewhat ironic that this is happening as the University decides to reintegrate the two parallel areas of organisation that were established a few years ago: schools and institutes. Now, all research activity will be managed within the school, and teaching and research brought closer together. The parallel path would have been to ensure that all research centres were integrated with departments, but I'm glad that the opposite has happened. I suppose it could be said that the true irony was that although the School and Institute were separate, many of our Centres were identical to our Departments (and therefore the structure did not really change what was happening at 'grass roots' level, but problematised its management and organisation), and that this proposed change could energise rather than restrict research activity.

So, there is change in the air, which is just as well because there's change in the air nationally as well. There may be trouble ahead, but while there's moonlight, and music, etc...

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