‘Grotesque’ flow of QR cash to minnows could sink REF, scholar warns

Funding gains for smaller universities ‘risks UK research quality’

April 2, 2015

Source: University of Essex

The “grotesque” amount of extra quality-related research funding flowing to some smaller institutions poses a risk to research quality and the future of the research excellence framework, an academic has claimed.

Paul Whiteley, professor of government at the University of Essex, made the remarks after last week’s announcement by the Higher Education Funding Council for England of the first QR allocations to be based on the results of the 2014 REF.

These included some very significant gains well in excess of 100 per cent by smaller institutions, while funding at some prestigious universities will decline, especially without extra “transitional” research funding earmarked for this year only. These include the University of Manchester (set to fall by 17 per cent) and Imperial College London (5 per cent).

In a letter to Times Higher Education, Professor Whiteley notes a negative correlation between post-transitional funding changes and institutions’ grade point average in the REF – including THE’s intensity-weighted GPA, which takes into account proportions of eligible staff submitted. The QR funding formula is based on each institution’s volume of 3* and 4* research, but, despite the volume element, Professor Whiteley said that he would still expect a positive correlation between intensity-weighted GPA – which he took as the best proxy for quality – and funding changes.

“My argument is not that institutions which have improved should not get rewarded, but that quite a few of the increases given to institutions with a weak history of research are grotesque,” he told THE. He said that changes in funding levels should be indexed to an institution’s absolute level of performance as well as to changes since 2008 as it would damage the overall quality of UK research if teams in top institutions broke up because their funding was diverted into “some ex-college where some people are good but a lot of people might waste it”.

Professor Whiteley also warned that if an incoming government picked up on the “perverse” allocations, it might well conclude that the REF was an expensive “lemon” that could be replaced with metrics.

Luke Georghiou, vice-president for research and innovation at Manchester, said that half his institution’s “disappointing” funding drop was due to its reduction in eligible staff numbers as the effects of its 2004 merger played out. But the institution had submitted the same proportion of eligible staff (78 per cent) in 2014 as in 2008. Higher rates recorded by some universities were due to their inclusion of “large numbers” of research-only staff.

The University of Leeds will lose nearly 9 per cent of its research allocation post-transition. However, David Hogg, pro vice-chancellor for research and innovation, said that Hefce had been “fair-minded” given the REF results, its commitment to supporting excellence everywhere and the constraints on its funding.

Steve Rothberg, pro vice-chancellor for research at Loughborough University, which will lose 14 per cent of its allocation, was less convinced. “Our funding for engineering has taken a hit and if you look at the other funding losers we can’t help feeling concern about the effect of Hefce’s funding algorithm on this important area,” he said.


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Reader's comments (2)

As someone working in one of the "smaller" (I guess one should read post-92) university that received a "grotesque" amount of additional QR funding I feel the need to comment. To my understanding the principle of QR funding is simple: a 4* (or 3*) output is worth the same, regardless of where it was produced. I have read quite a few criticisms of the REF process, some of which I found valid, but I fail to see how the principle that QR funding follows the source of quality research outputs endangers the quality of the UK research base. In fact any other principle would endanger the long-term quality of UK research: to protect groups from competition risks causing complacency, we know it e.g. from the business world. The "grotesque" increases may look large in terms of percentage, but are quite small in absolute terms. One could argue the other way around: £1M to a top UK university may not have a big impact on that university's overall future performance, but may have a big positive impact in a rapidly improving institution. Indeed these institutions have managed this improvement in an environment that generally favors the established players. Compared to other countries with well established university systems that I have worked in, Australia and Germany, the UK has by far the most stratified university system - no wonder that virtually all my UK friends were warning me not to join a post-92 institution. That I defied them was due to my being stubborn and trusted my feeling, and my experience so far has only been positive. So in these highly improving institutions "where some people are good" (very generous) I see very little risk that "a lot of people might waste” the increased QR funding. These successful new universities are too well managed and have successful researchers working too hard to allow for such complacency. They know that they can only survive in the research area through productivity and competitiveness, not based on institutional name and past performance. There is little doubt that most leading research in the UK is done at the highest ranked institutions - that's why they receive the lion's share of QR funding. But excellence should be nurtured wherever it is found. The world is changing at an ever higher pace, and where there is change there are always winners and losers. One should embrace this competition and seek to improve in future rounds. I hope this attitude will be increasingly adopted.
I agree wholeheartedly with the previous commentor and also feel I need to comment. If you consider the purpose of the QR algorithm to be a normalisation exercise to ensure that the balance of funding never changes between universities then you would be peeved. If, however, you not only accept that excellence should be recognised and rewarded wherever it is, then you may have an alternative viewpoint. What are we trying to achieve here? On the one hand "upstart" universities are derided for being research lightweights and intellectually inferior. On the other, when they are incentivised to improve and make a real contribution to the UK's research output and standing and actually do so, they are accused of unfairly taking food from the mouths of "proper" universities. So is the system robbing Peter to pay Paul or more fairly distributing resources to reward excellence wherever it is? Has the ever-increasing funding ratio towards 4* not yet gone far enough? Well that entirely depends on whether you buy into the concept of rewarding excellence wherever it's found or whether you think the whole purpose of REF and QR is to maintain the pecking order. If the grotesque allocation of funding to certain "upstart" over-achieving universities is the death knell of REF as Whiteley suggests, then the alternative that non-grotesque, "proper" university-friendly allocation is maintained regardless of REF scores equally argues against the point of the exercise. University expansion is a reality, it's happened whether you like it or not, get over it. In which case, shouldn't we be celebrating the increasing quality and quantity of research across the whole sector? If we believe in providing an excellent university education for all university students and that that requires an academic environment that is research active and aspirational with research informed teaching, then you have to accept this unfortunate redistribution of funding. Otherwise you are anti-competition and opposed to allowing all students access to high quality university education. Until such a time that someone decides to return to a two-tier HE sector it will continue to be an unfortunate inconvenience for the likes of Whiteley that "upstart" universities will continue to improve their research quality and intensity and therefore continue to stake a legitimate claim to an ever-increasing share of the total funding available. This is called competition and the challenge is for "proper" universities to rise to it rather than argue for a divine right for a continued level of funding. The argument that only traditional research-intensive universities can properly administer QR funding is also weak since the result of trickle-down funding from RAE2008 to newer universities speaks for itself in the general improvement in GPA of some of these, or else this article would never have had to have been written. How patronising and arrogant to suggest that only certain universities can use QR funding wisely! How does this argument stack up when you analyse the accounts and levels of borrowing across the sector? Is there any evidence at all for this assertion? It is interesting to note that Oxford managed to increase its QR allocation and Cambridge suffered a relatively minor fall. So clearly it is possible in research-intensive universities to maintain funding and even increase it. The real truth here is that many of the universities that consider themselves research-intensive and have had cuts to QR funding, Essex being a prime example, are much closer to the packed middle-ranking universities that now contains a good number of post-92 universities than they are to the best-performing Russell Group universities. Even in that cabal, there are necessarily quite a few that are closer to the middle ranking performance-wise than to the very best performers such as Oxford and Cambridge. Many of these post-war campus universities were looked upon dimly for many years by more venerable institutes so maybe it is a bit rich to use similar tactics on today's new universities. Maybe they will also find that the very best performing universities have little time for their complaints and don't back them up when lobbying ministers. It may turn out to be a damaging tactic by Whiteley and others following suit.