Rethink doubles 6* winners

August 15, 2003

Thousands of academics will see their departments gain the top 6* rating as part of a funding council climbdown on research concentration.

But the change will bring more kudos than cash.

More than 100 extra departments will be awarded 6* status, doubling the total number nationwide, under proposals published on Wednesday by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The changes, which are out for consultation, will see the first three former polytechnics gaining coveted 6* departments. Liverpool John Moores University and Manchester Metropolitan University will each have 6* sports-related departments while Oxford Brookes University will gain a 6* for its history department.

The proposals, which partially undo the government's stated aim of concentrating research money in fewer departments, mean that 200 departments will share the extra £20 million.

Currently, only those departments that were awarded 5* ratings in the 1996 and 2001 research assessment exercises have achieved 6* status. The new 6* rating was announced in the government's higher education white paper in January in a bid to create a tier of elite, well-funded research departments.

But the funding council now plans to award a 6* rating to departments that gained a 5* for the first time in 2001 but did not drop the number of researchers they submitted between the two exercises. These departments could have gained a lower grade in the 1996 RAE, but so long as they maintained the numbers submitted and reached 5* in 2001, they will be awarded 6* status. Some 45 departments that gained a 5* in 2001 but dropped the number of staff submitted will not be upgraded.

Rama Thirunamachandran, director of research at Hefce, said: "This recognises, more than the previous formula did, the breadth of research excellence across a wide range of institutions. It recognises the consistency of performance as well as excellence in research in 2001. Our research base is one of the best in the world. There's proof for that whether we look at citation indices or output per pound spent. The results of the 2001 RAE reflect that."

The move represents the first concession on the research concentration that was so opposed by the sector. Many senior researchers opposed the introduction of the 6* category - which was created after the completion of the 2001 RAE in which the top rating was 5*. More than half the panel chairs from the 2001 exercise refused to identify 6* departments. The consultation acknowledges this disquiet.

In effect, the proposals shift funding from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge to the universities of Bristol and Southampton. Under the previous system, Oxford and Cambridge had more than 40 per cent of the 6* departments; that figure has now fallen to 25 per cent.

Bristol University does particularly well under the new rules. It was rumoured to be considering legal action against the funding council after it gained just one 6* department. Under the new rules, it will have ten in the top tier.

Bristol vice-chancellor Eric Thomas said: "What the last outcome did was to have unfortunate consequences on those who had really improved. If this reverses that, it will be welcome."

Some less well-established subjects will also receive a shot in the arm.

Four of the seven emerging subject areas awarded extra funding to maintain capability will now boast at least one 6* department. They are: social work; communication, cultural and media studies; dance, drama and performing arts; and sports-related subjects.

The consultation also confirms that funding for 4-rated departments will be maintained in cash terms, equivalent to a cut once inflation is taken into account.

· An extra £8 million for capital funding will be shared between Oxford, Cambridge, University College London and Imperial College London under the plans.

The government has earmarked the cash to reward institutions that comply with conditions outlined in January's white paper. It states:

"(Institutions) need the leadership, governance and management to put in place outstanding research planning, sound policies with respect to intellectual property and a willingness to collaborate with others, and to help exploit the knowledge they generate.

"Where (institutions) have these arrangements in place in addition to the critical mass of excellent research, we will allocate additional capital funding to allow them additional flexibility to achieve their institutional goals for research."

The full list of  6*-rated departments is available to subscribers in the Statistics section. 

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