Ex-polys can now reach for the stars in research

January 17, 1997

The performance of the 1960s universities in the research assessment exercise gives hope to their 1990s successors and destroys the case for an elite grouping, says Frank Gould

It might be assumed that the age of a university would be strongly correlated with its performance in the research assessment exercise. Older universities will have received a greater cumulative amount of various forms of research funding over their lifetimes and will therefore have been able to build up a more extensive research infrastructure which should have attracted higher quality research staff.

One glance at the THES League Table of Excellence (THES, December 20, 1996), compiled on the basis of overall performance in the recent research assessment exercise, immediately shows such a supposition to be false. The 1960s universities of Warwick, Lancaster, York, Essex and Sussex, at positions 8,9,10,11 and 12 respectively, clearly performed better than the majority of the pre-1992 universities, some of which had more than 100 years' head start on these newcomers.

If we narrow the definition of research performance down to research of international excellence (ratings 5 and 5-star) we might expect this picture to change very substantially. We are now, after all, looking at the very peak of research achievement, which might well be expected to be taking place in the most established of institutions.

I have examined separately the performance of two groups of universities that were created in the 1960s - those created as completely new and those which were previously colleges of advanced technology or similar.

To the first group I have added East Anglia, Stirling, the Open University, Kent and Keele to the five high performers named above. The second group consists of Bath, Loughborough, Heriot-Watt, Aston, Salford, Strathclyde, Bradford, Brunel, City and Surrey.

The first group acquired 64 of all the 5 and 5-star ratings awarded, with Sussex and Warwick achieving 12 and 11 respectively. The second group acquired 41 5 and 5-star ratings, with Bath equalling Sussex's total of 12. Thus these two groups of "new" universities together took nearly 20 per cent of all 5 and 5-star ratings awarded to Committe of Vice Chancellors and Principals-member universities, a very creditable performance bearing in mind that they are only 30 years old and faced considerable competition.

Readers might care to speculate what the performance of this group of 20 new universities and retitled ex-colleges would have been in 1996 had the current proposal to concentrate research funding on a small elite group of universities been implemented when they were created in the 1960s.

Much research of international excellence would have been lost. Even with the support of the dual funding they did receive, who would have predicted then that some of these new creations would be among the top 12 universities within 30 years?

In fact, 5 and 5-star ratings were achieved by nearly 60 of the 100 or so CVCP universities and many more by the specialist institutes beyond. This tends to confirm an argument I was making some months ago in The THES (October 4, 1996), that the locus of good research is not so much the institution, even if it does have a high reputation for research, as the individual or cluster of individuals. These are clearly widely scattered across the sector.

It will also not have escaped readers' attention that the ex-colleges of the 1960s have very similar origins to the ex-polytechnics of the 1990s. Given time and a continuation of a reasonable level of dual funding (as the 1960s universities have had) who knows how many more 5 (or even 5-star) ratings they will achieve?

Frank Gould is vice chancellor of the University of East London.

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