Meritocracy knocks

The 2008 RAE results mean that funders will have to judge institutions on delivery, not reputation, writes Gerald Bennett

March 13, 2009

The recent announcement of the 2009-10 grant allocations for the higher education sector made for interesting reading. In funding terms, the impact of the 2008 research assessment exercise was plain for all to see.

For some, the reductions are obvious in real and relative terms, although total quality-related (QR) research funding has increased substantially. We have heard a lot about the traditional institutions facing reduced research budgets, but little about the winners.

Some of the research-intensive universities did well, as did a number of post-1992 institutions, although in a relative sense, as their small share of the funding pot increased.

Modern universities did extremely well by improving their relative research-funding positions. The profiling system employed by the RAE helped.

It is much fairer than previous methods and showed the spread of research excellence both within and between departments and institutions, excellence that previous RAEs missed.

Many post-92 and modern universities performed extremely well. They have moved on in research terms by using the meagre cash provided by the 2001 RAE very effectively. This applies both to established research performers in those sectors and to universities with emerging research profiles, such as the University of Wolverhampton, my own institution.

“Pockets of excellence” are now clearly identifiable throughout the country. Indeed, in a number of places, the term “pocket” is inappropriate.

The extent of identified excellence in some new universities is quite substantial, a positive indication of UK higher education’s research effectiveness.

The really interesting thing, however, is how established post-92 research institutions, such as the universities of Plymouth, Brighton and Manchester Metropolitan, now have research outputs and funding that exceed some of the traditional research-oriented middleweights. The hitherto clear distinction between pre-92 and post-92 research universities has blurred so much that it has in effect disappeared.

A further, and welcome, implication of RAE 2008 and its profiling system is that the external assessment of research competence has to become more sophisticated. When funders consider the best departments to carry out research, they now need to look at a wider range of institutions. We now have to judge institutions on their merits, not on stereotypes.

The reality is that governments, research councils, other funders and industrial partners must look at the whole sector to identify where the expertise lies. There is world-leading research everywhere.

So if your interest is in, say, computational linguistics or statistical cybermetrics, you now have to consider Wolverhampton alongside more traditional competitors. Across the research landscape, post-92 and modern universities have to be considered with their peers in older research centres.

Hopefully, some of the shortcuts used by certain funders to restrict involvement in their projects and programmes will disappear. They will need to look beyond traditional recipients and review the whole higher education landscape to ascertain where the world-leading expertise they require lies.

This should usher in a fairer era in research funding. Opportunities will be open to more institutions. Reputations will mean less and delivery will mean more.

There will be healthy competition in such an environment, and outputs should grow even faster than they have over the past few years.

Overall, the university research environment is in a better condition than it has been in for many years, and the RAE’s effects will improve things further. Established players have some lively post-92 and modern competitors operating alongside them, with more financial muscle than they had in the past.

If the trends apparent in the 2008 RAE continue, the next assessment of research excellence will be even more interesting. So well done to the post-92 and modern universities. Where is that binary line? It has been broken through. I can hardly wait for the research excellence framework in 2013.

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