British university research is the best since records began, according to the outcome of this year's research assessment exercise.
More than 25,000 staff are celebrating the news that they are based in a university department containing work of international excellence. Some 55 per cent of researchers who were counted in the exercise are in departments that won the top 5 or 5* grades, up from 31 per cent in 1996 and 23 per cent in 1992.
Research chiefs are stressing that the improvement is genuine. Universities have played to their strengths, increasing their efforts in successful areas while cutting back on weaker ventures.
Only the highest-flying researchers were included in the exercise, 3 per cent fewer than in 1996. Moreover, external indicators, such as the number of citations and international opinion, point to the increasing excellence of British research.
Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "The improvements in performance since the last RAE are a direct result of institutions managing their research strategically. They have used their funding selectively to build their research strengths in a very impressive and cost-effective way.
"The RAE results are consistent with a number of other benchmarks indicating the country's leading position, including numbers of citations, publications output and growth in research income from private sources."
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "The increase in the amount of high-quality research demonstrates that the UK's universities are delivering even better research than five years ago. And high quality has been achieved across a wide range of institutions - 61 institutions have one or more 5* rated units and 96 have at least one unit rated 5."
Roderick Floud, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of London Guildhall University, called on the government to fund the improved results. The extra cost of meeting the improvement is £170 million in England alone, and £200 million for the UK.
Professor Floud said: "Competitiveness through a knowledge-driven economy is a key government target. These results show that our universities are contributing at a world-class level, and we urge the government to provide the resources to recognise and build on this success.
"Additionally, while we recognise the need for selective allocation of research funding, Universities UK believes there is already sufficient selectivity. We need to find ways of rewarding the best, without also penalising those who have worked hard to deliver improved results. We recognise this poses funding problems, and we urge the government to find the resources to reward this excellent achievement by universities."
Sally Hunt, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "The results are yet another example of the threat posed to the hard work of academics by inadequate funding. We call on Hefce to join with the AUT and other unions in lobbying the government for an end to the research gridlock and a better funding settlement."
But higher education minister Margaret Hodge made it clear that there would be no more government money to cover the improved research performance next year. Speaking at a select committee meeting this week, she likened research in universities to the football league and said that the government did not want too many in the premier division.
The improved performance means that an extra 8,300 researchers work in a department rated 5 or 5*. Some 2,000 of these joined an existing top-rated department, showing that almost a quarter of the improvement can be attributed to the expansion of existing centres of excellence.
Other top performers include the London School of Economics and the University of Warwick, which pushed University College London into seventh place. The ranking is based on the average departmental grade per research-active member of staff, based on a seven-point scale. Institutions had to submit to more than one unit of research to appear in the main table.
The top ten also includes the University of Manchester, up from 23rd position in 1996, which concentrated its research in areas of strength for the 2001 exercise. It received a 5 or 5* grade in 37 out of 46 subjects entered for assessment, compared with 18 out of 48 in the 1996 exercise.
Vice-chancellor Sir Martin Harris said: "We set ourselves the task of becoming a grade 5 university with a major element at 5*. This we achieved handsomely."
The Hefce board meets today to discuss how to handle the results of the RAE. It must decide whether to cut funding to departments rated 4 and below or to delay the implementation of the results by one year.
RAE 2001 league tables