Leader: Excellence receives its rewards

The shift in focus away from the elite changes the research landscape and fulfils the funding council's promise for the RAE

March 5, 2009

It has had the mission groups wrangling, turned vice-chancellors into astute political lobbyists and has been preoccupying the sector for the past two months with nail-biting fervour. But just how much cash English institutions are to be allocated as a result of their performance in the 2008 research assessment exercise has finally been revealed this week. It marked the second and crucial stage of an exercise that may have had money at its heart but that has always been about so much more.

Unlike the Times Higher Education Table of Excellence, which we compiled when the RAE 2008 results were published in December, the tables we publish in this issue are a very different beast. Rather than a focus on pure research quality (irrespective of size), it is research power (that elusive combination of the volume of researchers and quality) that matters most here.

The results, which from the elite research institutions to their teaching-led counterparts see big wins for some individual universities at the expense of others, will establish a new pecking order for research funding.

But the results do more than upset the apple cart for a few institutions - which will no doubt have serious local consequences. They also confirm the occurrence of something profound, something that we were the first to speculate would happen in our pages in January.

After 20 years of seeing successive RAEs concentrate research cash more and more in the hands of a few, there is now a swing in the opposite direction. This comes in spite of a last-gasp attempt by the research elite to divert the cash back towards them, which has resulted in the budget for science, engineering, mathematics and medicine subjects being ring-fenced (with £50 million lost from non-science subjects). The Higher Education Funding Council for England defends the move as essential to protect a central principle of the Government's ten-year framework.

The overall reversal in concentration may be only "mild", as Hefce points out, but it is a remarkable one given the shoestring research budgets on which many of the academics driving this trend have been operating.

Whether or not this is good for the nation is of course debatable, but what is unarguable is that it has created new force in the research landscape. Call them pockets of excellence or islands of excellence, they should be treated with respect rather than scorned for, in essence, they mark the coming of age of the new universities. It is a testament to their maturity that they can in places compete on the same terms as the research-intensive institutions.

What happens to them, however, remains to be seen. The Universities Secretary John Denham has made it clear that he does not see their growth beyond RAE 2008 as part of his strategy for the future and the strong message coming through is that there should now be collaboration between the pockets of excellence and research-intensive universities. It will be interesting to watch what the successful institutions will do with the newly won funding they fought so hard for.

In the meantime, however, we should congratulate the funding council. For despite all the ins and outs and the ups and downs, it has delivered what it always said it would: an

RAE that funds excellence wherever it is found. It has negotiated a minefield and emerged with its promise intact. And it is for maintaining that integrity in the system that we should all be grateful.

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