REF results reopen funding debate

Rising quality leads to questions about future QR formula

December 18, 2014

The increase in the proportion of academic research classed as world-leading or internationally excellent has reopened the debate about how quality-related funding is distributed.

Results of the 2014 research excellence framework, announced today, reveal that the proportion of research deemed 3* or 4* has increased by 22 percentage points since the 2008 research assessment exercise.

It is too soon to say how this may affect the distribution of QR funding because the formula that determines how the money will be distributed to universities has yet to be announced.

David Sweeney, director of research, education and knowledge exchange at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said the REF results showed research excellence was distributed across the country in “much the same” way as in the RAE. “Subsequent [funding] decisions will depend on the consideration of the boards,” he said.

However, university mission groups and higher education experts reacted to the results by raising questions about how funding might be affected.

Michael Gunn, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University and chair of the Million+ group of universities, called for ministers and funding councils to deliver a more balanced research funding formula that will benefit “all parts of the country”.

He said that the results confirm that excellent research is found in all universities.  

“However, in the last five years, government priorities and policies have resulted in the funding councils redefining excellence which has led to the hyper-concentration of taxpayer-funded investment in fewer universities,” he added.

But Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents the UK’s biggest research-intensive universities, said that its members produce the vast majority of world-leading research “whichever way you cut the data”.

“Despite making up just 15 per cent of higher education institutions in the UK, the 24 Russell Group universities produce 68 per cent of the country’s world-leading research, as well as 68 per cent of the research with outstanding impact, across the whole range of disciplines,” she said.

Dr Piatt added that there are “real added benefits” to nurturing high concentrations of research excellence, including creating a “critical mass” of expertise and attracting funding from businesses.

Meanwhile, Steve West, chair of University Alliance, said that the question of how university research is funded is “critical” at a time when public spending is under scrutiny.

“Previous funding decisions have been right to seek out and fund the teams doing leading research rather than picking winners at an institutional level,” he said. The best way to maintain the UK’s global standing as a research nation is to continue funding excellence “wherever it is found”, he argued.

Mr Sweeney added that Hefce wants to use the REF results to build the case for more public funding for research. “We will be putting it very firmly to government that we have more good work going on and if we invest more in it we will see a return in terms of the impact on society,” he said.

He said the research funding pool was not finite because universities can attract funding from all sources, including those outside of the funding councils such as industry.

“This exercise builds the case for those who invest in research to selectively choose the UK to do it,” he said.

Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of Hefce, added that the four funding councils use the information in different ways, but all will be “making the case for further investment”.

“The results confirm that UK universities are in the top research rank of an international community. From an already strong position in the last exercise in 2008 our universities are delivering more ground-breaking work of the highest quality,” she said.

Mr Sweeney said that the reason for the uplift in the quality of research was because investment in universities from all sources had “increased considerably”.

“The UK is clearly very successful at attracting the best brains from abroad to come and work here so [the increase in research quality] reflects investment in our own people and the attraction of people from abroad to the research base,” he said.

He added that every comparator published over the past seven years showed that UK research had improved. “The UK is becoming one of the best places to do research,” he said.

Professor Atkins added that the REF could now answer the “crucial question” about the difference the investment in academic research makes to the world outside academia.

She said that the introduction of impact had “clearly demonstrated” that university research has had a “very positive impact” on economic growth, health, society, public policy, wellbeing and “overall has improved the quality of our lives”.

“This gives a considerable public benefit in high quality research,” she added.

One of the people involved in judging the case studies was Malcolm Skingle, director of academic liaison at pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline.

“The REF has got all academics thinking about the impact of their academic research and packaging it in such a way so that the impact can be articulated to all,” he said.

He explained that early on impact “frightened” academics but they began to “embrace it” as they moved through the exercise. “I personally have had academics phone me in terms of the potential impact of some of the stuff they are doing and four or five years ago they wouldn’t have picked the phone up,” he said.

The University and College Union said university staff should be congratulated for their “dedication and hard work” but added that too often the UK’s world-leading research was being conducted by people with little or no job security.

It added that universities should be rewarded with “proper public funding” and institutions should avoid any “knee-jerk” reactions or use low scores to make cuts.

Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said: “We are not alone in criticising what we see as a flawed process when it comes to the REF and have outlined the need for a fundamental overhaul of the research system. We want to see better funding that expands our research base, covering more institutions and more diverse areas of research.”

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