Selectivity raises scores across the board

December 14, 2001

THES reporters look at how RAE results have improved and put Hefce on the spot.

Fewer researchers were included in this year's research assessment exercise than in the previous one. Most institutions submitted only their highest fliers, gambling on getting more funding for fewer researchers rather than receiving less funding for a larger number of researchers, writes Alison Goddard.

The technique was used to great effect by the University of Oxford in the 1996 exercise. It submitted 91 per cent of its staff and gained a higher ranking - and more money - than the University of Cambridge, which had submitted 98 per cent of its staff.

The higher selectivity appears across the board. As only the best were included, results have improved. Some 46,700 research staff, expressed as the full-time equivalent, took part in the 2001 exercise. A total of 173 institutions made 2,600 submissions. In 1996, more than 48,000 researchers took part, and 192 institutions made 2,896 submissions.

The improvement has been ratified by overseas researchers. After the 1996 exercise, universities were stung by criticism that panels were deeming departments to be of international excellence without canvassing opinion from outside the United Kingdom. This time, international opinion was sought. In all but 3 per cent of cases, international assessors confirmed the panels' judgement.

British research has also improved on the world stage of late, according to work by Jonathan Adams of Evidence UK, a Leeds-based consultancy, on behalf of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Dr Adams found that British researchers wrote less than 10 per cent of the top 1 per cent most frequently cited papers in 1991; that figure rose to 11 per cent in 1995; 13 per cent in 1999; and 18 per cent in 2000.

In another recent study, Dr Adams measured British research performance in terms of total citations across all 68 units of assessment that were covered in the 2001 RAE.

He found that British papers consistently received more citations each year than the world average. Since 1996, Britain's performance has rocketed, going from 1.2 to 1.38 times the world average.

Dr Adams said: "It's the Red Queen effect: we have to run as fast as possible to stay in the same place. Given this, the improvement is remarkable. All the evidence tends to support the conclusion that the UK really has improved. It looks as if introducing selectivity has had an effect. There is nothing that suggests that this is not a genuine improvement."

RAE 2001 league tables

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