Universities worry about fallout from research ranking

After six years and a £60 million cost, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) published last month has shown growing success across UK universities in delivering world-class research.

There has been a general increase in universities’ top-rated research output, from 14% to 22%, according to Adam Crawford, pro-dean for research and innovation in the Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law at the University of Leeds.

The REF consists of experts assessing research in 36 subject areas, taking into account quality and infrastructure available to support it, along with its impact outside the world of academia.

The report included many different categories – quantity of top-graded research, number of researchers doing top-graded research and the universities’ impact – whether on a local or global scale.

The results help determine how much research funding each university will receive.

For City University, the number of staff producing world-leading or internationally excellent research had doubled in five years to 40 per cent.

The university is now considering applying for membership to The University of London.

City’s vice-chancellor, Paul Curran, said: “In the past we weren’t in a strong enough position from a research point of view, but we are now.”

He says the university has worked hard to boost its research profile, recruiting about 140 people between 2011 and 2013 for their research skills, and that a strong research showing helps boost the university’s international reputation.

“We were never doing it for the money,” he says.

The REF offers a monetary incentive: universities performing well will win a larger slice of the research funding pie of nearly £2bn when the UK funding councils allocate grants in March.

This will affect institutions’ allocations every year until the next REF results are released.

However, as all government departments are under pressure to reduce their deficit, the allocation pie is likely to shrink.

There are suggestions that more money could be directed through research councils, but these only support specific projects.

It has become less about carving up the cake of public funding, and much more about reputational benchmarks, says Crawford.

These benchmarks are becoming more important as competition grows to recruit top staff and students from around the world – something Cardiff University has experienced.

It submitted a lower proportion of its research staff for this exercise, which helped it leap from 22nd to fifth place in terms of research quality.

There continue to be high hopes for the university in attracting more international students and staff to Cardiff University, as it is seen as a top-five research-excellent institution.

This presents the university an opportunity at expanding and developing areas of research strength, as well as recruiting more researchers.

Furthermore, Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, argues that reforms to higher education over the past five years, including increased tuition fees and abolishing controls on student numbers, have made universities’ reputation more important than ever.

“It’s inevitable that over the next few years we are going to see institutions merge, some perhaps close or shrink,” Riordan predicts. “The reforms have led to conditions in which REF changes can really make a difference.”

Changes to the UK’s higher education sector will also likely occur at subject level.

The humanities and social sciences are particularly vulnerable, as medical and life sciences have performed better than expected, leading to fears of less cash for everyone else.

Mike Kelly, head of modern languages at the University of Southampton, said: “Every university is going to be looking at its portfolio of subjects over the next year and I think there are going to be various shakedowns.

If subjects or departments have the perfect storm – their research isn’t well assessed and they are struggling for students – that’s where universities will say time to call it a day.”

 

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