Funding allocations: a whole lot of nothing

April 2, 2015

The Higher Education Funding Council for England’s funding allocations demonstrate that the entire system of research assessment is an expensive waste of time (“Winners and losers in Hefce funding allocations”, News, 26 March). It makes virtually no difference to the allocation of funds to and between the research universities, and has not done so for 20 years.

In each year since 2000, very close to 75 per cent of total research funds has gone to the same 24 universities (all of which received £10 million or more in research funding in that initial year). As a result of the latest allocation, only two of those institutions will receive an allocation of funds in 2015-16 that is different by more than 1 percentage point of overall funds from what they received in 2000-01; they are the University of Oxford and University College London, the latter probably because of recent mergers. There was slightly more change between 1995 and 2000, but even so only six institutions have gained or lost by 1 or more percentage points of the total over two decades. One per cent of overall funds is a significant sum (about £16 million), but most institutions experienced much smaller changes and all now have incomes of hundreds of millions.

Since this is the case, what is the point? If it is to “drive up quality”, surely it defies belief that the quality of each and all of our research universities has improved by almost exactly the same amount over 20 years. If it is to enhance “impact”, then it is clear that all the sound and fury has signified nothing.

There will have been changes in the ranking of individual departments; this affects the self-esteem of deans and vice-chancellors, and allows public relations departments to have a field day, but that is not supposed to be the object of this cumbersome system. Meanwhile, money is squandered on hiring research stars and careers are wrecked by decisions to exclude researchers. Thousands of assessors waste time reading more books and articles than they need to.

As president of Universities UK (2001-03), I pointed out that the research assessment exercise did not seem to change anything. Now, years later, it still doesn’t. I agree with the principle of assessing research that is paid for with public money, but there are better ways of doing it. It would save large sums if we simply gave the top 24 institutions the same proportion of overall funds each year and told them to manage their staff effectively. It would be even simpler to abolish the current system and give all research funds to the research councils to allocate prospectively rather than retrospectively.

Sir Roderick Floud
Haddenham, Bucks

 

There is an interesting pattern in the data on Hefce funding allocations. The correlation between changes in funding between 2014 and 2015 and the grade point averages received by universities for their research staff is negative (-0.32). In other words, institutions that did poorly in the research excellence framework ended up doing well in terms of increases in their budgets, and many institutions that did well in the REF received budget cuts.

As an example, the University of Manchester obtained a GPA of 3.16 in the REF, which meant that it came 17th in the research rankings and yet received a budget cut of 17 per cent. In contrast, York St John University obtained a GPA of 2.04, ranking equal 120th, and this was accompanied by a budget increase of 182 per cent. If the shenanigans involving institutions excluding some of their staff from the REF are taken into account using the Times Higher Education intensity-weighted GPA, this does not significantly change the picture. The correlation between the adjusted GPA and changes in the budgets is similarly negative (-0.30).

This has happened because Hefce appears to have focused entirely on changes in the REF performance over time instead of taking into account both levels and changes in research quality. Institutions that improve their research should be rewarded for it, but, equally, institutions that historically do very well should not face large cuts just because their performance has slipped a bit. In the long run, the regression to the mean that this produces will weaken high-quality research across the board.

Whatever government emerges from the general election, one thing is certain: it will be looking to make cuts in public expenditure. Hefce’s approach feeds a growing perception that the costs of the latest REF were completely out of proportion to the benefits, and this makes it a prime candidate for cutting.

Paul Whiteley
Professor of government
University of Essex

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