REF 2014: study ranks subjects by competitiveness

Scholar says departments that did well in the research excellence framework may not have the right to ‘strut around campus’ if their field is not competitive 

September 10, 2015
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Who is front-runner? In the new ranking, civil and construction engineering emerges as the least competitive subject

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
History  83
Law 67
Politics, etc 56
Sport, etc 51
Modern languages, etc 57
Mathematical sciences 53
General engineering 62
Chemistry 37
Earth systems, etc 45
Psychology, etc 82
Education  76
Electrical engineering, etc 37
Physics 41
Philosophy 40
Architecture, etc 45
Biological sciences 44
Theology, etc 33
Sociology 29
Economics and Econometrics 28
Anthropology, etc 25
Clinical medicine 31
Agriculture, Veterinary and Food science 29
Area studies 23
Public health, etc 32
Classics 22
Aeronautical engineering, etc 24
Civil engineering, etc 14

Note: Unit of assessment names may have been shortened

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Print headline: Study ranks subjects by competitiveness

Reader's comments (2)

I am surprised that the benchmark used for research excellence is the number departments IN THE UK. I would have thought by now that it would be more standard practice to use international benchmarks for this. A fairly common indicator for international research excellence is the proportion of a group's scientific outout that is among the top 10% most highly cited IN THAT FIELD. The combination of proportionality plus subject specficity plus internationality excludes the kind of bias that prof. Kelly aims to address. Kees Kouwenaar Senior advisor international strategy Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
We should take this opportunity not to beat each other up within universities, but to be very upbeat about how good the research coming out of British universities is. Of course, it may be an uncomfortable truth that the RAE/REF is part of this, and that it has driven research quality upwards. (The problem of Kees Kouwenaar's arguement is that there is not a common indicator or measure of 'international research excellence'. Not least the measures that there are only for work in English. Moreover, the REF categories do stipulate international standing as a criterion.)

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