Break up RAE scam

September 12, 2003

Let's scrap unfair and wasteful dual-support research funding, says Michael Driscoll

It's time to get rid of the dual-support system for funding university research and replace it with a single open and transparent competitive-tendering system of project funding.

Research councils should also be made responsible for developing and managing national and regional research facilities accessible to researchers from any university. Such a system would foster collaboration, improve the regional distribution of research, reduce duplication and be more efficient and productive.

The current set-up - whereby research is funded partly by a non-earmarked grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and partly by earmarked project funds from research councils and other bodies - is at the heart of many of the ills of English higher education, and the research assessment exercise-allocated grant is the problem.

The purpose of the grant is to give universities a stable source of funding that provides flexibility and choice and to allow long-term commitments to be made to investment in the research infrastructure and in the development of research staff. These valuable benefits, however, are available to only the few universities receiving large grants. They have a stranglehold on project funding.

The problems caused by the Hefce grant element of dual support are widely recognised. The chaos and continuing farce of the 2001 RAE has led to attempts to come up with a better system. Sir Gareth Roberts' review seems destined to fail: the cracks are now too big to be papered over.

The research councils see the RAE as the reason that universities overtrade in research and fail to recover the full costs; they propose instead that Hefce grant funding be used to part-finance projects. This would remove discretion over how universities spent the block grant and might make it near impossible for institutions without large grants to bid for research council projects, further protecting a few well-funded universities from competition.

The RAE grant system is completely discredited. Besides encouraging overtrading, it discourages collaboration and innovative interdisciplinary research. It prevents flexibility in managing national priorities, continuing to underfund new areas such as media, communication and design and to overfund old forms of engineering and areas of science that will bring no advantage to the UK economy.

The arts and humanities were wise enough to know that without a research council they would remain forever underfunded by Hefce. The new Arts and Humanities Research Board removes another reason for the dual-support system.

We all know that the RAE system is an expensive sham. Its main purpose now is not to ensure the best use of research funds; the real reason for dual support, and its reinforcement with the introduction of the RAE when the sector expanded in the early 1990s, is to ensure that the same few universities that have traditionally been well funded remain so at the expense of the rest of the sector.

This has always been tacit government policy, but we see this now emerging as a key aim of English higher education policy. The bolstering of an elite, protected cartel at the expense of the rest of the sector will continue to distort and damage the quality and standing of English higher education and to be unjust to most students and staff across the country.

The chances of ending dual support are low - vested interest and self-deception will see to that. The Department for Education and Skills and Hefce will resist the transfer of funds, which give power and control over universities, to the Department of Trade and Industry. The well-funded will strive to protect their in-built advantage.

Too many other universities may still imagine that, with investment and good research management, they can increase research funding RAE after RAE.

But after the debacle of the 2001 RAE, the white paper and the league-table damage of RAE scores, the scales must surely be falling from their eyes.

Do we want to continue with dual support for the few at the expense of the many?

Michael Driscoll is vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities.

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