University managers are gearing up to use a new ranking of how competitive research is in different subjects to decide which departments should be cut following the 2014 research excellence framework, according to an academic who has devised the metric.
Anthony Kelly, a professor of education at the University of Southampton, has graded different areas using a technique normally used to judge whether companies have a monopoly over a market.
“Vice-chancellors can look at the REF results and see civil engineering has done really well and law hasn’t,” Professor Kelly explained. “But before they can make decisions like [whether or not to shrink a poorly performing department] they need to know how competitive civil engineering is compared to law,” he said.
The ranking uses the Herfindahl Index, which is used by US authorities and the European Union to assess market competitiveness by measuring companies’ market share to see whether or not a sector is dominated by an oligopoly of big firms or if it has a more competitive mixture of smaller ones.
Professor Kelly’s ranking uses the number of staff submitted by each department to the REF as representative of their market share.
On this measure, civil and construction engineering emerges as the least competitive subject (see table), in part because just 14 departments submitted to the exercise – far fewer than the more than 100 that entered from business and management, which ranked as one of the most competitive.
If a department is “strutting around the campus” because of a good REF result in a less competitive field, “that back-patting might not be justified”, Professor Kelly said. “If you have a very good airline in a very competitive market, that’s something, but being judged a very good airline in Russia doesn’t count for much, because it’s not very competitive.”
More than a dozen senior university managers had asked for the paper since it was published last month, Professor Kelly said. “It will be used as one of a whole suite of metrics” to judge the performance of departments in the aftermath of the REF, he explained.
The measure cannot directly measure the quality of research in a particular field, Professor Kelly acknowledged. But competitiveness can be used as a proxy for quality, he said, an assumption used in “government circles”.
Professor Kelly added that a “surprising” conclusion of the paper was that, according to the index, UK research as a whole “is as competitive as the most competitive commercial sector” in the US.
The paper, “Measuring research competitiveness in UK universities: introducing the Herfindahl Index to the 2008 and 2014 research assessment exercises”, published last month in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, also looks at which subjects have become more or less competitive compared with the 2008 research assessment exercise.
Clinical medicine, modern languages, area studies and public health showed the biggest drops in competitiveness, while sport, chemistry and general engineering posted the biggest gains.
Subjects ranked from most to least competitive
|Unit of assessment||Number of depts submitted
|Music, Drama, Dance, etc||84|
|Business and Management studies||101|
|English Language and Literature||89|
|Allied health professions, etc||94|
|Computer science, etc||89|
|Communication and Media studies, etc||20|
|Geography and Archaeology, etc||74|
|Art and Design||84|
|Social work and Social policy||62|
|Modern languages, etc||57|
|Earth systems, etc||45|
|Electrical engineering, etc||37|
|Economics and Econometrics||28|
|Agriculture, Veterinary and Food science||29|
|Public health, etc||32|
|Aeronautical engineering, etc||24|
|Civil engineering, etc||14|
Note: Unit of assessment names may have been shortened