RAE squeeze poses threat to Russell Group

June 23, 2000

Russell Group universities stand to lose out following next year's research assessment exercise, further raising concerns that the institutions will charge top-up fees.

RAE results are expected to improve in the post-1992 sector, which will be facing the second real test of its research since the former polytechnics became universities.

As a result, the cake could be divided into more pieces, leaving smaller slices for the research-led institutions unless more money materialises.

"If we haven't got more money for research, then either we will have to reduce the money going into the top-rated 5* departments or we will have to increase selectivity," said Bahram Behkradnia, head of policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Funding chiefs are weighing up the possibilities as rumours circulate that higher education is likely to have its funding cut by the Treasury in the current spending review.

The four biggest players in research - the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and University College London and Imperial College, London, - each receive more than Pounds 50 million in research cash each year from the funding council alone. These are the institutions that would be hardest hit if funding for top-rated departments were cut.

All four are members of the Russell Group, which is considering the advice it received from economists on differential tuition fees. If the universities receive proportionally less from the funding council, they will be more tempted to go it alone, looking to top-up fees to plug the funding gap.

The problem for the research elite is that other institutions are scaling the research grades while those at the top of the tree cannot climb any higher.

John Rogers, who manages the RAE on behalf of all the funding councils, said: "We have seen an improvement in performance in each cycle. My feeling is that many post-92 universities are pursuing a more targeted research strategy in their particular areas of strength.

"Making much more explicit the rules of the game - spelling out the criteria and what panels are looking for - has levelled the playing field for everyone this time and will help people put forward their research in the best light," Dr Rogers added.

The funding council is now trying to thrash out whether funding for top-rated departments should be cut or selectivity increased.

The issue of selectivity is being considered as part of the ongoing fundamental review of research. Initial responses were that selectivity should continue at the present level.

Mr Bekhradnia said: "We will try to be as helpful as we can and say where the funding cut-off will be - grades 3A or 3B - at the end of the year."

The final decision will be taken once the results of the spending review and next year's RAE are known.

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