Reform of research funding formula will benefit elites, says REF critic

Division as scholars analyse Hefce’s system for dividing £1 billion QR pot

February 26, 2015

Source: Getty

Lion’s share: downgrading 3* research may affect staff selection and funding

Tweaking the formula that allocates quality-related funding based on the results of the research excellence framework is likely to put pressure on universities to take a more selective approach to submitting staff in future assessments, according to one observer.

Derek Sayer, a professor of history and an author, believes that the move will further concentrate research funding among top universities.

But others maintain that the concentration of funding will remain largely unchanged from that seen after the 2008 research assessment exercise.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England released the initial details of the formula that will be used to allocate the £1 billion pot of QR funding for university research on 20 February. Among the changes from the RAE is a boost in the weighting given to world-leading, or 4*, research.

The relative quality weighting for internationally excellent (3*) and 4* research will change from 3:1 to 4:1.

Professor Sayer said that downgrading the importance of 3* research will intensify staff selection, an area that caused “major divisiveness and controversy” in REF 2014.

The move will further concentrate research funding among the top universities in a similar way that axeing funding for 2* research in 2012-13 did, he added. “The REF continues to be an extremely expensive exercise through which academic elites maintain and legitimise their position,” he said.

But Rama Thirunamachandran, vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University and a former director for research, innovation and skills at Hefce, said that concentration levels “will be about the same as they are now”.

“They won’t increase because the change in the ratio is largely going to reflect that there has been a significant increase in 4* and 3* quality research,” he said.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of newer universities, said that the Hefce board has been “clearly conscious” of the fact that research funding has been concentrated in recent years and has sought to work on the principle of funding excellence.

“However, we are a long way from a system which supports research infrastructure in all universities and a stream of funding for the translational research that supports regional growth,” she added.

David Sweeney, director for research, education and knowledge exchange at Hefce, allayed fears that the increase in volume of 4* research in the medical and life sciences could divert funding from other subjects.

He added that these subjects would see only a “very small increase” in funding because the total volume of 3* and 4* research, on the basis of which funding is split between the REF’s main panels, was “not significantly higher” in the life sciences than in the physical sciences, while the removal of the explicit protections for science and engineering subjects introduced in the RAE would benefit the humanities and social sciences.

Professor Thirunamachandran said it was right that a cut of 11 per cent made to arts, humanities and social sciences funding after the RAE, to top up funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects where research volume had fallen, is not to be continued.

“We need to recognise the importance of the arts, humanities and social sciences to the economy,” he said.

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