Funding formula fails to offer fair rewards 1

March 12, 2009

The Higher Education Funding Council for England ignored the results of the research assessment exercise when allocating funding for 2009-10 in English universities. This is shown by the correlation between the average RAE score for English universities published by Times Higher Education on 18 December 2008 and the changes in funding since 2008-09. The correlation is -0.13, which is not statistically significant, indicating no relationship between RAE scores and funding.

Why has this occurred? There are two reasons. First, a redistribution of funding towards institutions that traditionally received little research money but that have pockets of excellence is likely to weaken the relationship between funding changes and average RAE scores. This is because such institutions will tend to have low average RAE scores.

However, if we statistically control for the proportion of staff entered into the RAE, this should, in part, take into account such pockets of excellence. If this is done, it does not change the picture of the absence of a relationship between performance and funding.

This suggests that a second factor is largely responsible for the outcome, namely Hefce's decision to protect science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. These subjects cost a lot of money, and so this decision means that excellence in non-STEM subjects is penalised to protect average or even poor performance in the STEM subjects. Hefce has a strong defence for this decision, namely that the Government wanted it to happen.

It is ironic that Gordon Brown has just returned from Washington, where he made a strong plea to Congress to resist protectionism, when this is exactly what his Government is doing to research in Britain. Good research should be funded wherever and in whatever discipline it is found, and there should be no subject cartels that protect their position at the expense of everyone else.

Paul Whiteley, Professor of government, University of Essex.

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