More than half of all the research produced by some 52,400 academics whose work was rated as part of the 2008 research assessment exercise (RAE) is at least "internationally excellent".
The results of the RAE, published this week, show that 17 per cent of all research submitted is "world leading" - meriting the highest possible grade (4*) - while 37 per cent is judged to be "internationally excellent" (3*).
The world-leading research is found not only in the traditional research-intensive universities, but is also found in pockets in teaching-intensive former polytechnics and in some institutions that have had full university status for only two or three years.
David Eastwood - chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), which administered the exercise for the whole of the UK - said the high quality of the research was an "outstanding achievement" that confirms that the UK is among the "top rank of research powers in the world".
"The RAE 2008 has been a detailed, thorough and robust assessment of research quality ... we can be confident that the results are consistent with other benchmarks indicating that the UK holds second place globally to the US in significant subject fields," he said.
The outcome shows "more clearly than ever that there is excellent research to be found across the higher education sector", he added.
Outside specialist institutions, the University of Cambridge tops the table for the highest-quality research, according to a ranking devised by Times Higher Education (see the Table of Excellence, pages 28-30).
It is followed closely by the London School of Economics (LSE) and the University of Oxford, which both received the same overall average research quality score. The LSE has a higher proportion of its research in the top grade, with 35 per cent at 4* compared with 32 per cent at both Oxford and Cambridge.
Imperial College London slipped from second place in Times Higher Education's 2001 ranking, which was compiled for the previous RAE, to sixth place in 2008.
A number of institutions have emerged as rising research stars.
The University of Hertfordshire jumped from 93rd place in 2001 to 58th this year, while the University of Brighton rose from 80th place in 2001 to 59th this year.
Lower down the table, the University of Winchester, established as a university in 2005, climbed from 99th in 2001 to 78th this year, with 5 per cent of its submitted research judged to be "world-leading". This was bolstered by 15 per cent of its history research achieving a 4* rating.
The University of Chichester, which was given the university title in 2006, took equal 96th place in the Times Higher Education table. It had a small pocket of "world-leading" research in sports-related studies.
Among the more traditionally research-intensive universities, the University of York climbed into the top ten, up from 18th in 2001, while the University of Nottingham jumped from 37th to 24th.
But the biggest star among the research-intensive institutions was Queen Mary, University of London, which went from 48th in 2001 to 13th in the 2008 Times Higher Education table, up 35 places.
RAE 2008, which is the sixth and final exercise, comes seven years after the previous one. The results will be used by the four UK higher education funding bodies to decide how to distribute more than £1.5 billion a year in research funding to institutions over the next five years, with effect from 2009-10.
Exactly 52,409 full-time-equivalent research staff at 159 institutions had their work submitted to be assessed by panels that covered 67 research disciplines. These panels were made up of more than 1,000 peer reviewers. The panels assessed the quality of 2,363 separate discipline-based submissions. The percentage of staff submitted was 12 per cent higher than in RAE 2001.
Each university's submission to each unit of assessment has been graded according to the percentage of work that falls within four quality levels. The top rank is 4* ("world-leading"), followed by 3* ("internationally excellent"), 2* ("internationally recognised") and 1* ("nationally recognised").
Overall, 33 per cent of the research is "internationally recognised" and 11 per cent is "nationally recognised". Some 2 per cent of work was "unclassified" because it lacked sufficient quality or fell outside the RAE's definition of research.
Wide spread of excellence
Almost all the institutions that took part in the exercise had some research that merited the top grade. A total of 150 of the 159 institutions had at least 5 per cent of their research activity graded as 4* in one or more of their submissions.
Professor Eastwood said: "Producing quality profiles for each submission - rather than single-point ratings - has enabled the panels to exercise finer degrees of judgment. The assessment process has allowed them to take account of the full breadth of research quality, including interdisciplinary, applied, basic and strategic research wherever it is located."
Other overall UK statistics include:
- 49 institutions demonstrated some 4* activity in all their submissions;
- 16 institutions had at least half their research rated 4* or 3* in all their submissions;
- 118 institutions had at least half their research rated 4* or 3* in at least one of their submissions.
The Times Higher Education Table of Excellence presents an overall quality profile for each institution that shows the percentage of staff submitted by an institution that falls within each grade. Institutions are ranked on a "grade-point average" (a weighted average) of their quality profile using a scale from 0 to 4.
HIGH FLYERS WHO CLIMBED THE RANKINGS
Queen Mary went from top 50 to top 15
Nottingham jumped 13 places
Herts leapt 35 places up the table
Brighton moved up 21 places
Leeds also made it into the top 15 institutions
The funding council says it still has a "very long way to go" before it determines how the results of the research assessment exercise are translated into funding.
Although the results of RAE 2008 were released this week, universities must wait until March to find out how much of the annual £1.5 billion in research funding they will receive.
Funding will be based on the quality of an institution's research and the number of staff they have submitted for assessment, but the exact formula has yet to be determined.
The board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) will begin deliberations next month for English universities, after the publication of the annual government grant letter, which sets out funding levels for the sector and determines whether over-all research funding will reflect the increase in staff submitted to RAE 2008.
The formula for the RAE 2001 heavily concentrated funding on the highest-quality research, and many expect the same approach this time. Previously, the bottom four of seven grades attracted no funding, while the top rating of 5* attracted roughly four times as much as a rating of 4 for the same volume of research activity.
One decision facing the funding councils will be a "political decision" about whether to fund 1* research ("nationally recognised"). Since the 2001 exercise, there has been a greater political focus on "knowledge transfer" to local or national employers and on less prestigious "user-valued" research.
The second question is how steeply to weight the RAE grades for funding. The speculation is that 4* research could be worth either eight times or four times the amount of the lowest-funded grade. But Hefce's director of research, David Sweeney, declined to give anything away: "We have got a very long way to go, and there are a lot of factors to be considered. We are nowhere near deciding."
Do not miss our next issue, out on 1 January, for reactions to and further analysis of the RAE 2008 results. Meanwhile, post your reactions on line at www.timeshighereducation.co.uk.