Cause for celebration

RAE cash will broaden the UK's research base, so the Russell Group should stop complaining, says Malcolm McVicar

March 19, 2009

In the world of public policy, the most important battles are sometimes fought with a quiet intensity. One such dispute concerns the way the state shares out funding for top-class research.

The debate is broadly between two camps: one wants funding concentrated in the hands of a limited number of universities; the other wants money for excellent research, wherever it is found.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England published the out-turn of its 2008 research assessment exercise last December, having already indicated that it favoured the latter approach. Cue intense lobbying by institutions that wanted funds shared out more narrowly. I applaud Hefce and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills for sticking to their guns.

Now that the battle for the 2009-10 funding allocation has been settled, it is worth reflecting on what happened. From 1997, government policy sought to concentrate research funding. Those in power bought the argument that this was the best way to support the "best" research activity.

But then the debate began to change. Many became more amenable to the argument that research excellence was not confined to a university per se, but was found at subject level across institutions. Nevertheless, the funding allocations that followed the 2001 RAE were still highly selective and resulted in the continuing concentration of research funding.

The rules of the game for the 2008 RAE were designed to extend this selective approach. But when the outcomes were published, much to the surprise and disappointment of some, universities including mine that had previously been denied significant Hefce research cash demonstrated that they were carrying out research of the highest quality - and not just confined to "islands" or "pockets".

In 2008-09, my university, the University of Central Lancashire, received £448,753 in mainstream quality-related (QR) research funding. For 2009-10, this has gone up to more than £3 million. How did institutions such as Uclan achieve a significant increase in research activity with such a low level of QR funding?

We endorse the principle that to be a university, you have to engage in teaching, research and knowledge transfer. Denied adequate Hefce funding, we benefited from the commitment and drive of our staff, who took up the challenge of transforming Uclan's research activity.

It was the same story in many other institutions. If we look at England's former polytechnics, their QR funding in 2008-09 was £36.4 million. In 2009-10, it will be £84.3 million. That is a significant increase and a fantastic rate of return. It is also good news for the Government, which now has many more established research-active universities for a low level of initial investment.

But that success has not been welcomed by some institutions. Having largely designed the rules, they now cry foul because they did not get the outcome they expected. But what are they complaining about? In 2008-09, total QR funding for the English members of the Russell Group of traditional research-intensive universities was £632.2 million. In 2009-10, it will be £606.8 million. In the context of the research cash flowing into the Russell Group, a tiny shift to the likes of Uclan is insignificant.

We should be excited by the prospect of the new funding allocations generating even higher returns across the sector. The results are stunning and augur well for the development of the UK economy and the international partnerships that universities such as Uclan are engaged in.

In any other country, the results of the RAE would have been received with joy. Yet here, instead of celebrating success and looking forward to the returns that the investment will bring, we have new words creeping into the policy vocabulary - "collaboration", "research hubs", "special spin-out funding" - that are shorthand for a return to concentration. What should have been a positive atmosphere has been turned into a negative one.

Battles over the RAE allocations indicate the fundamental problems in English higher education. Instead of fighting the battles of 20 or 30 years ago, we need to move on. Has the dust settled? Yes, but only temporarily.

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