Pecking order

January 31, 1997

Frank Gould (THES, January 17) rightly points to the improved performance of former polytechnics in the 1996 RAE but his two role models - the 1960s universities and the advanced technology colleges - are very different from each other.

If 1996 ratings are compared with 1992 (counting 3a and 5-star as 0.5 point improvements), the polytechnics are the best performers, improving by an average of 0.64, closely followed by the former ACTs (0.6). These achievements compare with the more modest improvement in longer established universities (0.53) and the 1960s universities which bring up the rear with a 0.5 increase.

The real issue for the polytechnics is the tail of weakest departments and researchers: 115 polytechnic submissions were rated 1 in 1996 (15 per cent compared with fewer than 1 per cent of university submissions). One-third of these were also rated 1 in 1992. Undoubtedly, funding pressures and institutional strategies will ensure greater selectivity of researchers submitted to the next RAE.

As the former polytechnics have most researchers in social sciences and arts (58 per cent), and they score higher ratings in these subjects (average 2.85 on a seven-point scale compared with 2.32 for science and engineering), research in these subjects will grow at the expense of science and engineering. If the polytechnics continue to counteract successfully the legacy of under-funding for research, it appears that they will follow the greenfield universities of the 1960s which also have the majority of researchers in the social sciences and arts (61 per cent) and score higher ratings there (4.86 compared with 4.56). But they will radically differ from the ACTs, where the highest ratings are in science and engineering (4.5) compared with 4.33 for social science and arts), as are the majority of staff (59 per cent).

Andy Boddington, director Evaluation Associates Buckingham

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