REF 2021: Golden triangle looks set to lose funding share

Although major players still dominate on research power, some large – and small – regional institutions have made their mark

May 12, 2022
Large research-intensives in regional centres rose in REF 2021
Source: Getty
Large research-intensives in regional centres rose in REF 2021

A number of universities outside the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge look set to receive a funding boost from the results of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework after their overall performance improved compared with the previous edition of the REF.

Large research-intensive institutions in major regional centres such as the universities of Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool – as well as several smaller research institutions and regional post-92s – rose in Times Higher Education’s ranking based on the grade point average (GPA) of their results.

But some also look set to receive a boost to funding according to THE’s market share metric, which predicts the share of quality-related (QR) money they might get based on the current methodology for allocating resources on the basis of REF results.


REF 2021 results at a glance: 

RankInstitutionNo. UoAsGPAGPA 2014GPA 2014 rankResearch power (indexed)RP rankMarket share (%)

See here for full results table


In the market share analysis, the four institutions with the largest percentage-point fall in market share compared with REF 2014 are the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Imperial College London and UCL. Together, they had a market share of almost 22 per cent in 2014, but this has dropped to 19 per cent.


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David Sweeney, executive chair of Research England, told THE that one of his key takeaways from the 2021 results was that a large number of the extra researchers submitted to the REF this time – owing to a rule change that led to all staff with a “significant responsibility” for research being entered – had come from outside London and the south-east.

“Because we were being so selective [in the past], and more of the research-intensive universities are in the south, we have missed out on issues of quality,” he said. “It rather looks like research is a bit more levelled-up than we thought.”

However, he added, it was not the case that London and the south-east or the golden triangle “were less good, just that the other regions are a bit better than we thought they were”.

Jennifer Stergiou, director of research and innovation services at Northumbria University, which recorded the largest percentage-point rise in market share, and chair of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators, also said the REF results would crystallise the importance of research clusters outside the golden triangle.

“It’s already clear from submission volume data that the north-east will have the largest city-area grouping of researchers outside London,” said Ms Stergiou. “Set against a narrative of levelling-up, this is key information which wouldn’t ordinarily be verified through any other mechanism.”

However, Kieron Flanagan, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, said the results raised fresh questions over the REF’s future because its “unwritten rationale” in previous exercises was to “concentrate funding in as few places as possible”, mostly within the south-east.

“The REF was introduced to provide an objective funding formula that allowed the government to put funding into as few places as possible,” said Professor Flanagan, who explained that the original exercise in the 1980s sought to focus limited research budgets on centres of excellence.

“If we do see outcomes that lead to greater redistribution, that would undermine the logic of the REF,” added Professor Flanagan, who argued that “quality-related funding is the opposite of levelling-up”.

“The underlying purpose of the REF is this concentration of funding – we need to consider whether this is what we still want as a country.”


Methodology: how THE calculates its REF tables
More staff, more excellent research, great impacts: David Sweeney on REF 2021


On GPA, Imperial was ranked highest, with 3.63, taking top spot from the highly specialised Institute of Cancer Research, which entered only two of the REF’s 34 units of assessment, which cover different subject areas.

Cambridge and the London School of Economics were ranked equal third this time around, with GPAs of 3.53, while the University of Bristol completed the top five with a GPA of 3.51, rising six places compared with 2014.

The other big winner in the top 10 for GPA was Manchester, which climbed nine places to eighth, while Oxford fell back three places on GPA, although it topped the rankings this time on research power, a measure that accounts for the number of active researchers entered.

Elsewhere, the biggest movers in the GPA rankings included research-focused institutions such as the University of Leicester, which rose 23 places from 53rd to joint 30th, Loughborough University (up 19 places), and the universities of Kent, Surrey and City, University of London (up 10 places).

But there were also big successes outside the traditional research-focused universities, including Nottingham Trent University, which climbed 29 places in the GPA rankings, Manchester Metropolitan University, which rose 15 places, and Northumbria, which jumped 12 places.

The suggestion that institutions outside the golden triangle might have fared better because of the wider submission of researchers did not appear to extend to two of Wales’ main research-focused universities.

Cardiff University, which was ranked sixth on GPA in 2014 but was relatively selective in terms of the researchers it submitted, dropped 16 places, while Swansea University fell 22 places to joint 48th. Other notable fallers in the GPA ranking include the University of Warwick (down seven to 15th), Queen Mary University of London (down eight to 19th) and the University of Bath (down 14 places to joint 28th).

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Golden triangle’s funding share set  to shrink as regions show strength

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Reader's comments (3)

new
*Yawn*
new
It would be good to know the correlation between funding and research output quality. There are indications in the data that many universities are achieving high quality outputs for much less, particularly in research areas can be carried out without large amounts of funding. Are those at the top of the table really offering value for money?
new
What about fractional contracts? Extremely cost effective way of increasing outputs.

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