Selective funding attacked by UUK

February 1, 2002

Universities UK has attacked the decision to fund research more selectively than ever before.


The government has not provided enough money to reward improved performance, measured by last year's research assessment exercise.

Last week, the Higher Education Funding Council for England decided to fully fund in real terms researchers in departments given the top 5* grade. Researchers in departments rated 5 will get a 15 per cent cut in funding; those rated 4 will get a 20 per cent cut. Those rated 3a will get an estimated 70 per cent cut. Those rated 3b and lower will not get anything.

However, universities that have greatly improved their results will see their funding capped. Those that are overrepresented in units of assessment in which many entries were highly rated will also be hit, as the funding council has promised to maintain only "the average unit of funding for 5* departments in real terms".

Hefce will review last year's RAE over the coming months. One of the things to be considered is whether to create a new top grade above 5*.

Giving evidence this week to the Commons science and technology select committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the RAE, UUK highlighted the damaging effect of the failure to fund the outcome of the RAE.

Roderick Floud, UUK president and vice-chancellor of London Guildhall University, said: "This funding shortfall is highly damaging and in particular prevents research potential from being recognised. All universities will suffer but the cuts will be especially damaging to units graded 3 and 4 that have demonstrated improvement.

"The failure to fund the outcome of the RAE will have a severe effect on the morale of staff and research capacity. This should not be left to the government's 2002 spending review as cuts cannot easily be restored. Research capacity can't be turned on and turned off. A more strategic approach is needed."

Professor Floud was concerned about the tightening of selectivity and the further concentration of research funding. He said that units graded 3 and 4 - where the cuts are most severe - are where future world-class researchers will develop, and that these cuts will seriously undermine their ability to do so.

Higher education minister Margaret Hodge, who also gave evidence to the committee, was asked why the improvement in performance was not fully rewarded.

She said: "The RAE is not there to determine the quantum that government invests in research. It is there to determine relative quality."

Ms Hodge was asked whether Hefce was right to cut funding for departments rated 3a, 4 and 5 to maintain average funding for 5* departments.

She said: "I feel relatively comfortable with Hefce's decision. It is important to sustain excellence as our highest priority. I cannot do magic. It is not a demand-led budget."

WHAT IT MEANS FOR UNIVERSITY DEPARTMENTS

No hard cash for hard work

For a department that is relatively new to the research assessment exercise game, improving from a rating of 2 to 3b might seem like grounds for optimism. But nursing researchers in Birmingham University's School of Health Sciences fear their hard work will not be rewarded with hard cash, writes Tony Tysome .

Head of nursing Collette Clifford needs this money to keep afloat innovative research partnerships with hospital trusts. Advances have been made in areas including approa-ches to cancer care and heart disease rehabilitation, with academics and hospital staff working together.

Without funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, such arrangements may prove hard to sustain.

The prospect of more selectivity in RAE funding presented departments such as ProfessorClifford's with a catch 22 situation. "You have to have top-class research to generate income, but unless you can generate income you can't get top-class research going," she said.

3a's share is a 'mere gesture'

Elaine Thomas, director of the Surrey Institute of Art and Design, is delighted that its art and design research went from a rating of 1 to 3a. But she said the £20 million that the 3as will share is a "mere gesture", writes Caroline Davis .

Had Hefce continued to fund the 3as as it had previously, the bill would have come to about £76 million.

However, Professor Thomas supports Hefce's decision to exclude 3bs and not spread the money further.

She said Hefce should ringfence research funding for creative arts and other emerging disciplines to enable them to mature.

"Going from a 1 to a 3a demonstrates our capacity. But we want credit for our achievement and the opportunity to further develop that capacity."

Too much of a good thing?

Last week's confirmation that funding for the 5*departments will be protected was good news for pure maths at Imperial College, London, as it maintained its 5* grade in the 2001 RAE, writes Alison Goddard .

However, internal battles lie ahead. Imperial uses its funding-council grant strategically rather than passing it directly to the departments.

The college is concerned that funding chiefs have promised to maintain the "average" unit of funding for 5* departments. If its staff are concentrated in units of assessment with many high scores, then the college will not receive as much money as it would if they were overre-presented in less generous ones.

Some 75 per cent of staff at Imperial now work in 5* departments.

Department is now history

Not many historians are left at Luton University to celebrate the increase in their history research rating from a 2 to a 4, writes Phil Baty .

Luton closed its history department last August, a few months after the RAE submission deadline, and dismissed all but one of the researchers res-ponsible for the success.

Luton submitted the work of Nick Tirasoo, Nigel Aston, Ian Beckett, Larry Butler and Mark Clapson to the exercise. Only Dr Clapson remains at Luton. The others were all made redundant. Professor Tirasoo and Dr Butler are taking the university to an employment tribunal, claiming unfair dismissal.

Professor Tirasoo this week said it was a "sorry tale". He claims that he was forced to subsidise his research to the tune of about £10,000, as the department could not pay expenses for conference trips and fieldwork.

A university spokeswoman could not say how the research funding would be spent.

Scots face a similar fate

The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has not yet revealed its strategy, but Peter Pusey, head of Edinburgh University's department of physics and astronomy, is not optimistic about Scotland getting a better deal, writes Olga Wojtas .

"I think Scotland will just end up as a smaller version of what's happening in England," he said.

The department, which held on to its 5 rating, has the same number of permanent acade-mic staff as it did ten years ago when it was rated 3, Professor Pusey said.

"We are committed to a wide range of research areas, and I don't think we'll be able to cut specific areas. We will have to soldier on doing the best we can, and staff will continue to work 55-hour weeks."

The department has won £7 million from the Joint Infrastructure Fund for a new building to house experiments undertaken at very high temperatures and pressure.

Professor Pusey said it was unlikely the department could appoint many new research staff to work there. "We won't actually exploit these new facilities as well as we should," he said.

Blue-skies set to suffer

Cutting-edge work on fullerenes that helped to win Sir Harry Kroto the Nobel Prize for chemistry will suffer when the cuts hit Sussex University, writes Steve Farrar .

Roger Taylor, chair of chemistry, said the department was already tackling budget difficulties.

But in spite of the pressure, the 30-strong staff maintained their 5 rating in the 2001 RAE and remained at the forefront in a number of exciting areas of research.

Now that achievement will translate into yet another budget headache and Dr Taylor admitted he was disappoin-ted.

The size of the shortfall has yet to be calculated but it is likely to fall disproportionately on blue-skies research.

The fullerene work, with which Dr Taylor and Professor Kroto are involved at the Sussex Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Centre, may be especially vulnerable.

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