Research intelligence: Researchers with stars in their eyes

Hefce's new funding formula aims to spur world-leading research. Zoë Corbyn reports

February 11, 2010

When the provisional distribution of university funding for 2010-11 was unveiled last week, it was the cut to teaching funding that grabbed the headlines.

But the announcement by the Higher Education Funding Council for England also contained significant changes for researchers.

The total pot of quality-related (QR) research funding is to be maintained in real terms, increasing by £32 million from £1.57 billion to £1.6 billion.

But the news gripping the sector is that - in response to the Government's stated desire to increase the concentration of research - the funding formula will be rejigged to give a bigger share to work judged to be "world leading" (4*) by the research assessment exercise 2008.

While Hefce will continue to fund research excellence wherever it is found, the new formula will see 4* research funded at a rate nine times rather than seven times that of "internationally recognised" (2*) work.

"Internationally excellent" (3*) work will continue to be funded at the previous rate, which is three times that of 2* work.

This will result in a funding ratio of 1:3:9, compared with the old formula of 1:3:7.

Modelling undertaken by data-analysis firm Evidence for Times Higher Education shows that elite universities will benefit from the change. However, the picture is more nuanced than may be supposed, partly because of the "pockets" of research excellence that exist elsewhere in the sector.

Jonathan Adams, director of Evidence, a subsidiary of Thomson Reuters, said: "A department with 5 per cent of 4* work will still get more for it ... the isolated pockets of excellence will still be earning money for their institutions." He said that departments with lots of 4* work would see an increase in funding, as would those with "odd spots" of 4* but little 3* work. Those with lots of 3* work stood to lose the most on current levels.

Dr Adams said the steeper funding gradient adopted by Hefce "better reflected" the fact that truly outstanding research is "very costly to produce".

He described the previous funding ratio of 1:3:7 as "an uncomfortable compromise", adding that the new formula would give universities a greater incentive to produce more 4* work.

Losses and gains

Under the old formula, institutions had most to gain by ploughing funds into improving 2* work to 3*, thereby trebling their money, rather than turning 3* work into 4*, which would cost more to achieve and deliver only about a twofold increase in funding.

Under the 1:3:9 formula, institutions that improve the ratings of research from 3* to 4* will treble their income.

Yet there are concerns about the changes, too. Do the differences between 3* and 4* work merit such a wide funding differential?

And what of the significant differences between the judgments reached by RAE panels for different subjects? In physics, 25 per cent of the best-rated department's research was judged to be 4*, whereas in media studies 65 per cent of the top department's work was graded 4*.

Dr Adams said Hefce may have to revisit some of the panels' judgments.

There will also be concerns that, although the funding formula may go some way towards increasing the concentration of research funding, it is a blunt tool.

If Hefce is serious about pursuing a concentration agenda, it may need either to give the "top" institutions some sort of bonus, or to review its policy of funding excellence wherever it is found.

Dr Adams believes the latter approach is necessary to protect the UK from the "worst possible outcome": the entire research base being undermined by a shortage of funding.

But others disagree. Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that scrapping a system that treats all universities fairly would be seen by the academy as unacceptable.

The changes were announced by Hefce in a circular letter to vice-chancellors on 1 February.

The letter also says that half of the funding for geography and psychology is to come under the protection of the science ring-fence, which was introduced last year to prevent money leaking away from the sciences to the humanities and social sciences.

As in 2009-10, the humanities and social sciences will miss out on funding of about £50 million as a result of the science ring-fence in 2010-11.

The full allocations will be announced in March, but the longer-term future of QR funding remains unclear.

Dr Adams said that research funding may have been spared this year because - unlike student numbers - it is difficult to cut quickly without catastrophic effects.

But he warned that "any vice-chancellor who thinks that no cuts this year means research money is going to be protected longer term is living in cloud-cuckoo-land".

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