REF funding change ‘funnels extra £60 million’ to golden triangle

Oxford, Cambridge and UCL have been the big winners from changes to formula used to allocate quality-related research funding, analysis shows

December 16, 2019
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Elite universities within the UK’s golden triangle are set to receive almost £60 million extra thanks to an unexpected change in how quality-related research funding is allocated, according to an analysis.

Before the previous research excellence framework, institutions were awarded three times as much quality-related (QR) funding for a piece of “world-leading” (4*) research as they received for an “internationally excellent” (3*) paper. However, the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced after the publication of the 2014 REF results that it had changed the weighting from 3:1 to 4:1 following a 70 per cent increase in the volume of research achieving the top score.

Now a paper in the journal Research Evaluation has quantified exactly who has benefited from this tweak and who has lost out. According to the study by Mehmet Pinar, professor of economics at Edge Hill University, the University of Oxford was the biggest winner, receiving £2.8 million more in QR funding in 2017-18 than it would have under the previous formula. Over a seven-year REF cycle, that equates to nearly £20 million in extra QR funding.

Oxford was closely followed by the University of Cambridge, which picked up £2.5 million more in 2017-18 than it would have done without the formula change. The next biggest winners were UCL (£1.4 million), Imperial College London (£1.3 million) and the London School of Economics (£471,000).

Overall, it means that the institutions in the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge are likely to receive about £58 million extra over the seven-year REF cycle.

The biggest loser was the University of Leicester, which would have received £456,000 extra a year if the older funding formula had remained. The University of Liverpool and Manchester Metropolitan University would have picked up an additional £297,000 and £289,000 a year, respectively.

Overall, 99 institutions would have claimed more funding under the old system, although 65 of those would have received an annual boost of less than £50,000, according to the paper, which concludes that the change “benefited few [at] the expense of many”.

The change, however, made relatively little difference to how the £1.6 billion a year in recurrent research was divided among subjects, the study also found.

Dentistry, nursing, pharmacy and allied professions would have received £941,000 extra a year under the old system, up to £62.3 million annually, while computer science and informatics would have lost out on £832,000 a year.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Pinar said his analysis raised questions about whether 4* research should be funded so heavily, given that the difference in quality between 3* and 4* outputs was often marginal.

“There is a lot of discussion and disagreement between peer reviewers about what constitutes a 4* paper,” said Professor Pinar, who observed that papers rated 3* by some business journals had been viewed as 4* in the 2014 REF and vice versa.

“If I produce four 3* papers, I will gain the same funding as someone with just one 4* piece of research; but who is making the bigger contribution to a discipline?” added Professor Pinar.

The analysis also raised questions about how the 2015 decision to change the formula was taken, and would the 2021 exercise be subject to similar changes, Professor Pinar said. “There was consultation on everything else but not on this,” he said.

Research England, Hefce’s successor organisation, was not able to respond immediately to Professor Pinar’s analysis, but a spokesman observed that more than £10 billion would be distributed over the REF cycle in question.

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Reader's comments (1)

I commented on this aspect of REF back in 2013, when I suggested we really needed a discussion about whether it was desirable to build a Matthew effect into the funding model "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Matthew 25:29" The case can be made for concentrating research funding in a few elite institutions, but it's not self-evident that this is optimal for UK research. REF could be used instead to help those institutions who had potential for excellence, but were hampered by limited resources.

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