London’s leading institutions secured far more grant funding from UK research councils than other universities last year, in a powerful demonstration of the capital’s growing scholarly power.
Imperial College London secured the largest amount of open-call funding in 2017-18, according to a Times Higher Education analysis of data provided by six research councils – £91.5 million, up from £72.7 million last year, a 25.8 per cent increase over a period in which the overall amount of funding distributed dropped by 8.6 per cent.
UCL remained in second place, securing £89.2 million, up from £76.4 million.
Imperial’s return to the summit displaced the University of Oxford, which had spent three years at the top, but dropped to sixth last year. It captured £53 million from the six councils in 2017-18, down from £77.7 million in 2016-17 – a 31.7 per cent decrease – and £90.7 million the year before that.
Imperial also pushed down the University of Cambridge, which captured £73.3 million.
This represents something of a return to form for Imperial, which frequently secured the most funding in the first half of the decade, although sector observers warned against reading too much into data that inevitably fluctuate year-on-year.
But the amount of funding allocated to Imperial and UCL could be seen as a demonstration of the growing scale of London’s leading universities, and the attractiveness of the capital as a place to do research for leading academics from around the world.
Imperial enjoyed a big increase in its success rate, with 29.8 per cent of its applications being funded, up from 24.7 per cent the previous year, and well above the sector-wide average of 25.8 per cent. UCL’s success rate improved too, from 27.1 per cent to 28.7 per cent. While Cambridge’s success rate dropped, from 32 per cent to 27.6 per cent, Oxford’s rose 1 percentage point to 30.5 per cent.
UCL’s achievements in particular echo its success in the last research excellence framework, in which it was ranked top based on “research power” – a measure not only of quality, but also the volume of submissions. It leapfrogged Oxford, Cambridge and the University of Manchester in the 2014 REF compared with the 2008 research assessment exercise, reflecting a large increase in its submitted headcount and the absorption of previously independent institutes such as the School of Pharmacy and the Institute of Education.
Overall research council grants 2017-18 by institution
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Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the UK’s capital was more dominant in national life than it was in many other countries, and that “what is true in general now seems to be true with knobs on for our university sector”.
“In many ways, that is how it should be. London is one of the great cities because it is so international in outlook, and world-class research tends not to respect national boundaries either,” Mr Hillman said.
“But the success of research-intensive institutions in London does come with risks too. It makes our excessively hierarchical sector even more top-heavy. It will also do nothing to convince [Brexit referendum] Leave voters in the north of England that their regions are benefiting from internationalisation.”
Nick Jennings, vice-provost (research and enterprise) at Imperial, attributed the university’s success to its growing research capacity as well as careful reforms to the way in which its departments go about funding applications.
“Cross-faculty reforms over a number of years have introduced new processes for joint research bids, while we have established multidisciplinary networks in areas such as artificial intelligence, vaccines and air quality,” he explained. “We support a culture where both fundamental discoveries and practical applications enjoy the highest esteem.”
But David Price, UCL’s vice-provost (research), cautioned that there were “always ups and downs in annual awards data” and that, over time, Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial “generally are in the top four”.
“The UK is lucky to have a number of world-leading research-led universities, and we all are doing wonderful discovery science, which both advances international scholarship and, given the correct policies, will enable the UK’s economy and productivity to remain competitive,” he said.
Oxford was also overtaken last year by the universities of Manchester and Southampton in terms of value of grant funding, but both had lower success rates than their older rival.
The institutions in the top 10 with the highest success rates were the universities of Bristol and Glasgow, winning funding for 32.4 per cent and 31.7 per cent of applications, respectively.
An Oxford spokesman said that the data provided by the research councils did not fully capture its research endeavours, highlighting that the reporting of multi-year awards in a single year may amplify annual rises and falls, and that it may not accurately represent the allocation of funding for collaborative awards.
“Oxford received record research funding of more than £570 million last year from a diverse range of national and international partners, including business, charities, the NHS and Europe. This funding also included £153 million in all awards from the research councils, reflecting the university’s disciplinary and interdisciplinary strength spanning medicine, social, physical and life sciences and the humanities,” the spokesman said.
“We deeply value our close relationships with all our funding partners and believe their investment demonstrates confidence in the excellence of our research and the wider-ranging benefits it delivers.”