RAE 2008 results prompt a flurry of analysis

The University of Cambridge is generally agreed to be the top performer, while the position of other institutions fluctuates across league tables. John Gill reports

December 18, 2008

After a seven-year wait, and with academic fingernails bitten to the quick, the results of the Research Assessment Exercise 2008 were finally released, prompting an unseemly scramble as universities vied to stake their claims as the best and the brightest.

While there was general consensus with the Times Higher Education’s ranking of the University of Cambridge as the top performer, including in the Financial Times, the position of other institutions varied from league table to league table.

The BBC had the usual suspects at the top, but picked out the University of Leicester as having the greatest cluster of world-leading researchers of any discipline in any university in the UK, with 65 per cent of its staff rated 4* and 30 per cent 3* in museum studies.

The Times chose to focus on the Cinderella-like story of the University of Westminster’s School of Media Arts and Design, where 60 per cent of the research was rated as “world-leading”.

“Former polytechnics give Oxbridge a run for its money,” it cheered, pointing out that, in this category, only Leicester fared better.

The Guardian, which also ranked the University of Cambridge top, put the University of Oxford in second place, the London School of Economics in third and Imperial College London fourth.

By contrast, The Independent crowned the LSE king, announcing that it had “pipped Oxford and Cambridge to the post”.

But if the big beasts of the Russell Group of large, research-intensive universities thought they were going to have it all their own way, they had not reckoned on the spin employed by some of their less-high-profile rivals.

Doing its bit for the local University of Central Lancashire, which came 96th in the Times Higher Education rankings, the Lancashire Evening Post announced boldly in its headline: “UCLan is better than Oxford”.

Although the story began by stating that the university had “beaten Oxford in the latest research league tables”, it later admitted this was only in linguistics research.

Another paper sticking by its local universities was the Evening Standard, which said that London institutions had “dominated” the upper echelons of the tables.

Meanwhile, 200 miles further north, the University of Manchester declared that it had “smashed the Golden Triangle for research, traditionally dominated by Oxford, Cambridge and the LSE”.

“Based on any analysis of today’s results, Manchester emerges amongst the country’s top four or five universities,” it said, although the Times Higher Education ranking puts it at eighth place.

Not to be outdone, in Scotland, The Herald celebrated an “RAE of sunshine”, saying that the country had seen a 65 per cent increase in the number of “world-class” university researchers since 2001, when the last RAE took place.

The Scotsman was similarly cock-a-hoop with the results posted by the University of Edinburgh, where more than 1,000 researchers were deemed to be world-leading.

In Northern Ireland, The Belfast Telegraph highlighted the achievements of the University of Ulster and Queen’s University Belfast, both ranked in the top 50 by Times Higher Education, while in Wales, Wales Online and the Daily Post claimed that “every area of research at Wrexham’s Glyndwr University is of international standard”, with Bangor University singled out for similarly fulsome praise.

Physics World was less cheery, announcing: “Top UK physics departments tumble”.

Its ranking of physics departments found that Lancaster University came top, with the University of Cambridge pushed into second place, while Oxford, Southampton and Imperial College all fell out of the top ten.


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