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Redesigning Research Universities
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Are British research universities losing their way or are they finding a new way?

Nigel Thrift, a well-known academic and a former Vice-Chancellor, explores recent changes in the British research university that threaten to erode the quality of these higher education institutions. He considers what a research university has now become by examining the quandaries that have arisen from a succession of misplaced strategies and false expectations.

Challenging both higher education policy and leadership, he argues that the focus on student number growth and a series of research policy missteps has upset research universities’ priorities just at a point in the history of planetary breakdown when their research is most needed.

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This chapter considers issues that never go away, namely the balance of public and private funding, student access, tuition fees, research funding, research integrity, pensions, league tables, and autonomy (or the lack of it). The chapter concludes by describing the high degree of dissatisfaction that can now be found in and with many British research universities, and I try to answer the question of why this dissatisfaction has grown to quite the degree it has.

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This chapter introduces the book’s contents and main arguments. It takes a considerable amount of space in order to explain what I call unlearning as the main way in which the knowledge generated by research universities progresses.

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This chapter considers a number of system, teaching and research policies that might begin to boost research universities chances of doing excellent research that can establish a future for the planet such as national universities, enhanced cooperation, a pared-back residential model, and boosting institutional capacity through research centres. These are based on greater cooperation and more coherent and focussed leadership and a greater emphasis on design.

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This chapter provides a core definition of the research university based on the concept of four particular duties. It then turns to the question of excellence. Do recent developments in research promote more excellent research or not. This is a pressing question since excellent research will be one of the planet’s only lifelines as climate change bites. Four issues are examined: over-publication, research culture, discovery research and levelling up

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This chapter is a brief description of what a vice-chancellor of a research university does, considering both the typical work pattern and the challenges of the job. It also explores what some of the ingredients of success may look like.

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This chapter continues from in surveying the different constituencies that go to make up a university, concentrating on students, parents, council and alumni. There is a substantial digression on freedom of speech.

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This chapter is concerned with the large number of changes that have happened in the university system since the 1990s. The chapter gives a brief account of the main events and the key issues animating the history of the expansion of the UK university sector over the last few decades, culminating in the current sort of market, sort of state, takeover. These issues include student numbers, numbers of universities, proliferation, managerialism, audit, research funding, the knowledge economy, internationalisation, Brexit and geopolitics. Hopefully, this chapter will serve to orient the reader in the contemporary university landscape.

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This chapter considers some of the main actors that go to make up a university, concentrating on the roles of the built environment, academics, technicians, contract research staff, postgraduates and administrators. There is a substantial digression on the growing role of online teaching.

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This chapter argues that a much better explanation of recent developments in research universities than marketisation is provided by the intersection of a series of three processes: financialisation, nationalisation, and student number growth arising out of a model of higher education which might be considered Australian in character in its concentration on size and institutional similarity. The chapter ends with an examination of the problematic leadership of the sector and the likelihood of a financial crisis.

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