As the budget boosts incentives for fundraising and enterprise,
a new report shows how top research universities are already pulling away from the rest of the pack. Claire Sanders reports.
A few universities are taking the lion's share of research funds - and their rate of growth is accelerating - according to the interim findings of the Higher Education Funding Council's fundamental review of research funding policy.
The review confirms that Cambridge, Imperial, Oxford and University College London, are capable of competing at the highest levels internationally, with Imperial being compared to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The greatest growth has been in the big universities with medical schools, where there has been "an overall concentration of research activity". The report says: "As funds have become more concentrated, so the output of the most active universities has both increased and improved: they are delivering more, better research."
The interim report on selectivity and excellence, part of the review, shows that in the past 15 years the effectiveness and productivity of the UK research base has increased significantly.
Its author, Jonathan Adams, head of the higher education policy unit at Leeds University, says: "Early indications from bibliometric data show that UK research has improved its competitiveness overall over the past 15 years, as well as creating areas of peak performance that are higher than before."
Imperial, with its match of public funds and private research contracts, compares to MIT. "We found that, contrary to popular belief, there is not good correlation between public funding and private contracts in the United States", says Dr Adams. "MIT stands out as an exception to this, and Imperial is the nearest comparison."
Dr Adams warns against concluding from this that the research-strong Russell Group of universities, which is lobbying for differential fees that could see further escalation of wealth differentials, are doing uniformly well as a group.
"We need to look in detail at the individual performance of universities if we are to make serious international comparisons," he says. "There is no uniform pattern across any one group."
Dr Adams has compiled a data study of research funding, research students and staff numbers and research outputs. He has also sent a questionnaire to higher education institutions on their internal processes for research management and the selective use of research funds, and carried out a number of case-study visits.
According to the data, research grants and contracts have gradually shifted towards large universities with medical schools since 1987. In 1997, 72 per cent of total grants and contracts and 74 per cent of research council grants went to these universities.
By universities with medical schools, Dr Adams means those with membership of the Council of Medical Deans. This includes, for example, Leicester, which is not part of the Russell Group.
The shift coincides with the introduction of the research assessment exercise, which slowed the growth in research activity in other old universities, particularly in the campus universities created in the 1960s.
But Dr Adams has found the shift in research activity to be more marked in terms of people than finance. This, the report argues, may suggest increased effectiveness. Since 1987, the percentage of research students working in the big medical universities has shifted from about 66 per cent to more than 70 per cent. About 75 per cent of research-only staff are in this group, where they have more than trebled in number since 1980, while numbers in the remaining old universities have doubled.
The interim report concludes: "The UK system has become more concentrated than it was in the 1980s is relatively more selective than the US research base and the shift in selectivity is primarily attributable to the RAE process."
The report also argues that the rate of change has been slow enough to allow this concentration to be manageable and to maintain the overall effectiveness of the research base.
The RAE has brought about the better management of research in universities, accelerating a process that was already in place, making the system more transparent, with better communication of research results.
* THE RUSSELL GROUP'S GROWING SHARE OF RESEARCH FUNDS
Independent research by The THES with the Royal Society of Chemistry has looked at the extent to which the Russell Group is gaining the lion's share of research funds.
Sean McWhinnie, the society's science policy officer, has compiled a database from Higher Education Funding Council and Higher Education Statistics Agency figures.
He says: "I began by looking at chemistry, where the concentration of research funds is particularly acute. I have looked at figures for external research income in England going back over 11 years for old universities and back to 1994-95 for both old and new.
"In 1987-88, among the old universities, 55 per cent of non-funding council research funds for chemistry went to Russell Group universities.
"By 1997-98, even with the inclusion of new universities, the research funds going to Russell Group universities had increased to 66 per cent of the total (figures 1 and 3). It is this increasing concentration of science money in particular that is making certain universities richer."
On almost every indicator used by The THES/RSC, the Russell Group has increased its share of funds.
New universities have lost out on all the indicators used - except for their share of Hefce grant, which has gone up.
The THES/RSC found that Imperial had increased its percentage share of total research income by 2.3 from 4.7 per cent in 1994-95 to 7 per cent in 1997 98 (figure 4). It is followed by University College London, (2.1); Queen Mary & Westfield College (0.8); King's (0.7); Sheffield (0.5); Oxford (0.4); Brunel (0.4); Southampton (0.4); and Greenwich (0.3).
Oxford and Cambridge still had the highest percentages of total research funds in 1997-98 at 7.9 per cent and 7.0 per cent respectively (figure 5).
This analysis covers English universities only.
* HOW UNIVERSITIES MANAGE THEIR RESEARCH
Universities say that the biggest change in research activity in recent years is the "conscious and active management of the research environment".
This is not "direct management", which is considered unproductive. Many say they prefer to concentrate on appointing and supporting the best staff - and then let them get on with it.
Just as universities are keen to recruit staff with strong research records, they are also more prepared to pay severance costs of those not contributing enough.
In his study of research excellence, Jonathan Adams also found that most universities say that the quantity of research being done has risen dramatically and that people are much more likely to communicate the fruits of their efforts.
"The quality equation is complex, but there is less wastage, more purpose and more overt support for the most promising ideas," he says.
Along with a greater awareness of research performance and what the report describes as "a conscious shift in gear in most institutions" has come an improvement in research training - "both in terms of resources available and in terms of a more systematic approach," Dr Adams says.
Many universities allocate the research element of their block grant through models that broadly follow the Higher Education Funding Council model of grades, weightings and resource units - although some
are more selective and targeting departments in trouble.
Dr Adams concludes: "It is likely that more conscious research management would have progressed anyway, but research assessment acted as a major stimulus in the 1980s and served as an effective tool for senior management to lever institutional change."