Getting it together

David Watson argues that for research funding to be distributed equitably, the best way forward is through deeper collaboration

April 3, 2008

We are now in that period of "phoney war" that follows the submission of every research assessment exercise. Huge tactical effort has been put into the institutional entries. Now we have to await the funding outcomes of a zero-sum game in which, like football managers, nearly all of the institutional leaders are convinced - whatever the evidence - that they will win.

Have we really seen the last of the RAEs? Will the research excellence framework deliver? In so far as citations - seen as the solution to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) subjects - will work, they will be convincing only if they replicate the results of the last of the RAEs. As for the other subjects, is it really possible to have a "lighter touch" approach that will escape legal challenge and overcome concerns about equal opportunities? Successive exercises have become more sophisticated and transparent precisely to avoid these problems.

Two outcomes are certain. Hyper-concentration of funding in the hands of a few "QR winners" will continue: four institutions will continue to scoop about 30 per cent (and 23 about 75 per cent) of the spoils. As a result, we shall have to learn to live with a two-tier system. This division will not, incidentally, simply recreate the binary line: "old universities" without medical schools will mostly be outside the charmed circle; "new universities" will be well placed to prosper in the second tier.

The main effect of the REF will be to freeze QR funding in a state set somewhere between 2001 and 2007. Moreover, this seems to be the basic policy intention: note how much of the Higher Education Funding Council for England consultation is about "stability" and avoiding "perturbation".

Two tiers represent a policy mistake for various reasons. Entry to the top tier will become nearly impossible. New combinations of subjects (and institutional partnerships) - the stuff of "foresight" at its best - will wither in this part of the sector. Above all, this division represents a counsel of despair: the best of what we have now is the best we can ever hope for. We shall, however, need to learn to live with it.

Life among the QR winners will not be a bed of roses. The real value of "dual support" has been in decline since 1992, and genuine full economic costing remains out of reach. Missions here will become narrower as internal concentration of resource mirrors external funding. They will also be increasingly dominated by medicine and science; not least because funding required to "match" investments in science and technology will progressively bleed the arts and humanities.

The favoured institutions will operate more and more against the grain of a "mode 2" world of knowledge creation and exchange. There will be disincentives to participate in academic partnerships that dilute the citation denominator (exacerbated, for example, by the treatment of group authorship as a single unit to exclude self-citation). It is also likely that the QR winners' relative decline in the ability to "leverage" public money into private support will continue. We can expect to hear ever more desperate appeals to a narrow vision of "world-classness" from this part of the sector.

As for the rest of the institutions, life outside an inflexible and backwards-looking QR-winners' circle will have its compensations, as well as some challenges. The most important task will be to "right-size" an approach to their own morsels of QR that acknowledges its relative contribution to a wider pool of research funding. Meanwhile, a concerted effort must be made to demonstrate that institutional reputations (including for research) can be made away from an RAE/REF that will cease to be "the only game in town". Such reputations will depend on catching a number of waves: the increasing importance of the creative and service economies; a renewed interest in "liberal" values in undergraduate education that fuses the research and teaching agenda; a similar demand for "translational" research and what the surgeon Atul Gawande calls in his book Better the "science of performance"; and the tendency (spotted by Gary Hamel in The Future of Management) for innovative companies to operate in a fluid, experimental, partner-friendly, "university-like" way.

Together these developments will offer an alternative, forward-looking definition of "research intensity". Above all, they will mean adapting to a world of wider and deeper collaboration, in which at many of its scholarly frontiers the isolated institution is no longer the most sensible unit of analysis.

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