Metrics deliver a costly blow to the elite

June 16, 2006

The Times Higher provides an exclusive analysis of how the Government's proposed funding models would hit the sector

Changes to the funding regime could deplete the coffers of some top universities. Anna Fazackerley reports

Three of the "big five" research universities were dealt a huge blow this week as new research funding models put them at the bottom of the league for government cash.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, announced a radical overhaul of the much-criticised research assessment exercise in his Budget speech in March.

After months of recalculations, the Department for Education and Skills unveiled five potential metrics-based funding models to replace the RAE in a consultation document on Tuesday. The results have sent shockwaves across the sector.

Oxford University stands to gain between £1 million and £8 million under each of the models, putting it near the top of the league for funding. University College London also stands to make substantial gains under all but one of the models.

But in an unexpected reversal of fortunes, their competitors in the so-called Golden Diamond of top research universities (Oxford, Cambridge University, UCL and Manchester University) are set to lose more funding than almost all other universities.

According to calculations by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Cambridge University would lose substantially under each model, suffering cuts of more than £5 million on two of the five.

Manchester comes bottom of the league on every model and could lose up to £8 million.

Similarly, Imperial College London - which is used to being one of the giants in the sector for science - would lose out under all the new options, facing cuts of up to £7.4 million.

Nancy Rothwell, vice-president for research at Manchester University, said:

"On the first model they did, we gained; so how can it now be so different? To have Oxford going up and Cambridge going down is bizarre."

Malcolm Grant, provost of UCL, said: "The whole thing is problematic. If you look at it politically, you could not readily contemplate the thought of the volatility that these models imply."

He added: "I fear that the main debate will be lost under tribal and territorial battles where people will express preferences for the models that favour them."

Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College, said: "Since the modelling is based on data returned to, and the results of, RAE 2001, we look forward to reviewing the models with more recent and other data."

As well as shattering the Golden Diamond, the proposed models shake up the sector more generally. Under the new schemes, more of Hefce's annual £1 billion research budget will go to the new universities at the expense of the traditional research-intensive institutions.

These dramatic shifts have led some institutions to consider whether the unpopular RAE might, after all, be a lesser evil than a new metrics-based system.

Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, said: "Frankly, my preference would still be for the RAE to continue. I think a lot of vice-chancellors in the research-intensive institutions think that."

Another head of a research-intensive university said: "I have no doubt that some institutions will say they want to keep the RAE when they have looked at these models. It has happened in the past."

Under these models, which are based on Hefce income for 2002-03, leading research universities including Sheffield, Bristol, Bath, Durham and Sussex are hit hard. Meanwhile, new universities such as Greenwich, Sunderland and the University of the West of England stand to make considerable gains.

Crucially, only one of the five models takes account of the old RAE quality ratings. This means that a low-rated department that is pulling in grants from business or the research councils will be rewarded for that research regardless of its status. Hence some institutions that previously received nothing from Hefce are seeing a change in their fortunes.

At Greenwich, which is looking at income increases of up to 300 per cent, Baroness Blackstone, the vice-chancellor, said: "This is a good outcome for us. I have always felt that the post-92 universities are not doing as well as they should out of research funding. They are doing a lot of applied research, which is of huge importance to the economy."

But Glynis Breakwell, vice-chancellor of Bath, warned that smaller research universities such as hers were being penalised by the focus on volume of income.

She said: "There is a big question here about scale being mistaken for quality. If you are small but research intensive and have been producing high-quality research, this approach is inevitably going to be difficult to swallow."

Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol University, said: "I would think it is a case of saying to Hefce: your first attempt at metrics is problematic, go back to the drawing board."

He added: "I think selectivity is about right in this country. I do not believe it should be hugely more selective, but nor should it be hugely more unselective."

This week, many university managers confessed to being at a complete loss to explain why some of the big funding swings had happened.

It is clear that disciplines that command big research grants have steered the results fairly substantially.

Institutions with hundreds of top staff working in clinical medicine would have big gains under most of the models, while those with large numbers of staff working in cheaper desk-based subjects such as maths and computing would reap smaller rewards.

A top university could suffer big losses because its researchers are working on projects that do not require big sums of money, or because it has a large number of research students or fellows who are not generating grants.

Controversially, no citations whatsoever were included in the modelling. Although bibliometrics are favoured by institutions such as Cambridge, they have been shelved for the time being.

The models cover science, engineering, maths and technology only. Income for the arts and humanities is frozen so that it does not affect the calculations.

Hefce and the Arts and Humanities Research Council are exploring ways to assess the arts and humanities, which would probably include an element of peer review. But there is some concern that the social sciences, which do not sit easily within a metrics system either, are being overlooked.

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

The consultation will run until October 13. It can be accessed online at www.dfes.gov.uk/consultations/

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