Consortia: A Guide for Senior Academics

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The landscape of UK higher education is changing. The most recent, major change – the cut of 80% of the block grant for teaching, alongside the contraction of research funding – has meant a complete overhaul of the income funding model for HE institutions. In some areas (notably undergraduate recruitment) this has produced more market-driven competitive behaviours. But in other areas there has been a move in the opposite direction, towards collaboration.

This collaborative turn has seen the rise of consortia arrangements across UK HE. For senior staff or mid-career professionals looking for ways to develop their career it pays to be up to date on the various forms of consortia, a few of which I will outline here.

PGR Consortia

Research consortia for postgraduate (doctoral) training partnerships (DTPs) are now commonplace. The major research councils (AHRC, BBSRC, ESRC, NERC, etc) have now devolved their previous funding allocation function to consortia of universities (more rarely, individual research organisations). These consortia bid for 5-yearly blocks of doctoral grants, and then award studentships between them on the basis of the block grant received. To take the AHRC as an example, the block grant also funds research preparation masters, and professional preparation masters (examples of AHRC DTPs include Midlands 3 Cities, Northwest Consortium, South, West and Wales).

The implications of this for universities are considerable. On the one hand, partner universities now shoulder the dual burden of both bidding for the block grants, and administering the doctoral awards annually. But the gains have been substantial. Firstly, universities gain a great deal in publicity from such arrangements, given that they are able quite truthfully to advertise millions of pounds’ worth of doctoral funding. Secondly, academic staff now have direct input in selecting the most promising students from between the consortia partners. For students this means increased choice and better training, since the universities have had to up their game when it comes to providing top-notch doctoral training programmes. Thirdly, for senior staff, such consortia have meant the creation of a number of cross-institutional administrative and research-based roles – roles which allow them to work with colleagues across partner universities, and to be a key player in selecting and training the next generation of researchers. When the research councils made direct awards of studentships, these decisions were previously out of academics’ hands: with this change in culture, academics have been put directly back in charge of shaping the next generation of researchers. 

Research Consortia

The research councils also encourage the establishment of research consortia from PhD level upwards, awarding seed funding for knowledge exchange activities such as research networks and leadership training. Research networks allow academics to expand their reach beyond their subject area, particularly by creating opportunities for interaction with international academic communities. Such consortia also build capacity for the future by enabling doctoral and early career networks. From such networks emerge further opportunities for collaboration, as well as events which raise a university’s profile in academic communities.

Teaching-led and other research consortia

Consortia also are developing out of the impact agenda, with increasing opportunities for collaboration with heritage and other public institutions, including libraries, museums, galleries, academies and schools. Such collaborations may be teaching-led, allowing staff to draw on and develop their teaching profile through engagement with a much wider public than previously possible; they may also enable staff to bring their research to a much wider audience than before. Conversely, partner institutions may gain in teaching and research expertise. Student and postgraduate placements are also a feature of such collaborative arrangements, while academic staff are able to enhance their experience, make a wide range of contacts beyond their immediate academic field, and work productively in a local community. 

Industry-led consortia

Business networks, often with placements in industry, are also the order of the day. These enable business leaders and university staff to exchange learning and training opportunities, and to re-conceive industry-university relationships for the benefit of the wider community.

In sum, the current rise of the consortia model represents a wide range of exciting opportunities for senior staff in particular who are looking to gain greater responsibilities, deepen their experience beyond their immediate environment, and work across and beyond the university sector. 

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