A personal view - We need to keep some selectivity in funding to ensure a critical mass of 'world-leading' research in our universities

January 15, 2009

At the Universities UK conference last September, there was much speculation - and anxiety - about the type of league table that would appear after the results of the research assessment exercise were released.

My contribution to the discussion was stark - "the only league table that matters is the one we will see in March, the one listing QR (quality-related research) income," I said.

Did I really mean that? Any self-respecting vice-chancellor would surely like to improve his or her institution's performance in any quality-related league table. We are, of course, delighted that we now rank 14th (or even eighth in "research power") compared with 26th in 2001. We have, however, avoided triumphalism, sounding cautionary notes about likely QR funding outcomes internally.

Has the caution and distaste for "over-egging the pudding" - so natural in Yorkshire - finally rubbed off on this refugee from the South of England?

Alas not. It was evident from the outset that those towards the top of the QR income league table would have to perform much better in RAE 2008 than they had done in RAE 2001 to maintain the same levels of funding. In any comparison of the differences in methodology between RAE 2001 and RAE 2008, it is clear that any formula for funding that has no predefined step-change thresholds (as occurred for RAE 2001) will distribute QR funding much more widely around the sector.

We await the final decision from the Higher Education Funding Council for England on the funding formula, but there is already widespread speculation that total QR funding will flow out of our most research-intensive universities towards the rest of the sector.

Certainly any model that funds RAE 2008 performance profiles without moderation will result in such an outcome. At first glance, the argument supporting this methodology - that research excellence should be funded wherever it is found - seems hard to disagree with. But does it stand up to close scrutiny?

In considering such an issue, it is useful to pursue the arguments to their extremes.

If our top research universities lose income, their world-leading performance and their critical mass of research excellence will suffer. Their international competitiveness will decline and, in the next round of research assessment, they will decline again. Eventually they will no longer be "world-leading" institutions able to compete with the very best universities in the US and elsewhere.

Looked at from the other extreme, those universities that have some, but limited, "world-leading" research in RAE 2008 will gain more funding and will be able to expand their research activity. They will improve their performance and do better next time, but will they ever gain the critical mass of research excellence necessary to compete globally?

There is a cogent argument that such a QR funding regime would eventually lead to reasonably well-funded mediocrity across the nation. Too many universities would end up unable to compete at the very highest international level, lacking a sufficient critical mass of research excellence to have true impact.

Does this matter? Of course it does - ensuring that there is a sufficient degree of research selectivity with critical mass is fundamentally important to the success of our economy, to the international reputation of UK higher education and, ultimately, on our impact as a nation.

We need to take the outcome of RAE 2008 and create a funding regime that acknowledges the importance of a critical mass of research excellence in addition to funding research excellence wherever it is found. This is the only way in which we can ensure that we as a nation keep our best research-intensive institutions funded at a level that allows them to compete with the very best in the world. Anything else would not only be foolhardy, but detrimental to UK higher education and the nation.

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