Breadth of quality gives UK edge, says University Alliance

Fight against research concentration hots up with analysis finding almost “no direct correlation between volume and excellence”. Zoë Corbyn writes

December 22, 2009

Funding the best research wherever it is found across the sector, rather than just in large research-intensive universities, is what has given the UK research base its international edge.

This is the message from the University Alliance, the mission group representing 22 “research-engaged” institutions, presenting a new analysis that examines the relationship between quality and quantity in research excellence.

Drawing on previous research and reviews, the analysis, Concentration and Diversity: Understanding the Relationship between Excellence, Volume and Critical Mass, published last week, concludes that there is “no direct correlation between volume and excellence outside some of the physical sciences”.

The study represents the latest salvo in the battle within the sector over research concentration. The issue has come to a head since the last research assessment exercise resulted in cash being spread more thinly, much to the chagrin of big research-intensive universities, which argue that this trend cannot continue in a tight fiscal environment.

The November 2009 government strategy document Higher Ambitions: The Future of Universities in a Knowledge Economy said research funding needed to become “more, not less”, concentrated across the sector, putting a particular emphasis on the high-cost sciences. However, it stopped short of shifting from the principle that excellence had to be the “defining basis” for allocating cash.

Libby Aston, director of the University Alliance, said: “We are urging the Government to maintain a consistent, evidence-based approach by continuing to selectively fund research based on excellence alone.”

The analysis says it is “peaks of excellence” – not simply high volume – that determine the position of the UK as a world leader in research.

The relationship between the volume of research undertaken at an institution and excellence “varies by discipline”, it notes.

The University Alliance analysis draws on a study published last month by the Higher Education Policy Institute. That work, Oxford and Cambridge – How Different Are They?, was based on data from the firm Evidence. It showed that the Russell Group of large research-intensive institutions had a greater percentage of highly cited papers than the sector as a whole (5.7 per cent compared with 5.2 per cent). However, when the leading institutions of Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College London, the London School of Economics and University College London were removed from their number, the remaining Russell Group institutions had a lower proportion of highly cited papers than the UK sector as a whole (4.6 per cent compared with 5.2 per cent).

The University Alliance study also makes use of the 2000 report Fundamental Review of Research Policy and Funding by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. This showed that small units and “lone researchers” could be just as effective as large teams in some subjects.

Responding to the University Alliance report, the Russell Group argued that it was “world-class universities, with their heavy concentration of brainpower, established excellence and the sheer numbers and facilities” that were “best placed” to deliver the benefits of research.

It added that when it comes to the “lone scholar”, the backing of an “internationally recognised university” was a great help.

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