Funding losers criticise allocation decisions

Research elite ‘surprised’ by ‘real decline’ in budgets, reports Zoë Corbyn

March 6, 2009

Research-intensive universities that fared badly in this week’s funding allocations have strongly criticised the process that was used to distribute the cash.

A total of £1.572 billion in recurrent research funding was shared out between 124 English institutions on the back of the results of the 2008 research assessment exercise.

The allocations saw big swings away from some research-intensive institutions and significant funding increases for many teaching-led universities, marking a reversal in the trend over the past 20 years to concentrate research funding in the hands of a small elite.

Among the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, Imperial College London lost £5 million, a drop of 5 per cent; the University of Southampton lost £3.2 million, a fall of 6.9 per cent; and the London School of Economics lost £2.4 million, a decline of 13.4 per cent.

These dwindling funds compare unfavourably with a sector-wide increase in cash terms of almost 8 per cent, and real terms of almost 6 per cent.

The proportion of mainstream quality-related research (QR) funding received by Russell Group universities tumbled from 65 per cent to 60 per cent.

Sir Roy Anderson, the rector of Imperial College, described it as “surprising” that his institution, which is ranked top of all UK institutions for the proportion of its research that is world leading or internationally excellent, should suffer a “real decline” in its allocation of research funding.

He blamed the reduction in the Russell Group’s share of the cash on the change in research assessment methodology from single summative ratings “with seven different quality thresholds” to profiles “with just four quality levels”.

“At a time when the UK is looking to its science, technology and medicine powerhouses for ideas and innovations to help lead the economic recovery, it cannot have been intended that we could be reducing the share of and, in many cases, actual research funds to institutions that have demonstrated sustained excellence across successive research assessments,” he said.

Meanwhile the LSE, which achieved the highest percentage of 4*-rated research in the country, described itself as a “victim” of the late decision by the Government to protect the proportion of funding flowing to science subjects. The “inevitable result” of the ring-fencing is a “relative dilution” of support available to “high-quality research” in other areas, the LSE said.

A statement from the Russell Group acknowledged that its institutions faced a tough time ahead. “This settlement does not go far enough for many of our leading research-intensive universities to meet… tough [economic] challenges,” it said.

But elsewhere in the sector there were loud celebrations.

The Million+ think-tank, which represents post-92 institutions and whose members have doubled their share of recurrent research funding from about 1.5 per cent to 3 per cent, praised the Government and the Higher Education Funding Council for England for “ensuring that excellent research is funded throughout the sector”.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, said: “Post-92 universities have paid back with abundance the very modest levels of research funding received in the past. By rewarding excellent research wherever it has been found, this settlement will boost innovation.”

GuildHE, which represents higher education colleges, was also celebrating after its members received an average 68 per cent increase in funding for research.

“The announcement today is a just reward for academic colleagues in institutions that do not claim to be research-led, many of whom had made significant strides forward in research excellence on the basis of very limited financial support,” it said.

The 1994 Group, which represents small research-intensive universities, said it was pleased with the rise of more than 5 per cent in research funding its members had secured.

Universities UK also welcomed the allocations, although it noted that some institutions would face funding challenges as a result of changes.

It said it would be crucial not to “lose sight” of the importance of social sciences and humanities research and the contribution it makes to the UK’s creative economy.

“We note Hefce’s intention to establish incentives for research collaboration between institutions and look forward to further discussions about what these might be. UUK believes such collaboration should be institution-led,” it said.

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