Small research stars deploy RAE gains to shine brighter

The pockets of excellence picked out last year are putting their windfalls to good use, Zoe Corbyn finds

January 7, 2010

It is a year since the now-familiar "pockets of excellence" were identified by the 2008 research assessment exercise in universities traditionally considered to be teaching-focused.

Despite their often shoestring budgets, these units have shaken up the established order, reversing the trend of concentrating funding in an ever smaller number of top institutions. As a result of the wider spread of resources, the research-intensive universities have seen their share of quality-related (QR) research funding fall by about 4 per cent.

But beyond the fuming of the elite and the battle raging over the UK's policy on research concentration, there is another story.

The pockets of excellence, many of which have received staggering funding increases in percentage (if not absolute) terms, are buzzing as they put their money to use.

All of them aim to capitalise further on their performance, according to Andrew Wathey, deputy chair of the University Alliance, and Les Ebdon, chair of Million+.

Professor Wathey, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, said the pockets would prosper as long as the funding system continued to "recognise excellence wherever it is found" and universities "invest in their strengths".

Professor Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, added that the institution was submitting grant applications with "a lot more confidence" following the "tremendous encouragement" provided by the RAE.

Nouveau riche

But what are they doing with their funds, which began to flow at the start of the academic year?

Northumbria has seen its QR cash rise 142 per cent, up from £1.3 million to £3.3 million, while the University of Lincoln's shot up by 628 per cent, from £0,000 to £1.9 million. Bedfordshire's QR funding has more than doubled to about £1 million, and the University of Central Lancashire's has risen from £1.5 million to £3.8 million, up 154 per cent.

Much of the RAE bonanza has funded new academic posts.

Although the difficult financial climate has forced many research-intensive universities to make cuts, the pockets of excellence have fared far better.

"The analysis that most of the cuts are happening in the research-intensive universities is correct," Professor Ebdon said.

"The Russell Group and 1994 Group universities tend to staff up (before RAEs) because they want as many people as possible in the volume indicator. If they are not as successful as they had hoped, they end up significantly short of cash and therefore reduce staff."

Partly as a result of its success in RAE 2008, Northumbria has already advertised 40 new posts this academic year and is planning to create more next year. One of its targets is to double the number of staff it submits to the forthcoming research excellence framework.

Lincoln, meanwhile, has created 10 to 15 new posts so far this year and is "certainly planning to make a further investment", according to Mike Saks, its senior pro vice-chancellor. Similarly, Uclan has a rolling programme to appoint between 15 and 20 staff at all levels annually over the next few years.

Most of the units that are hiring are seeking scholars who can excel in both teaching and research.

"We have recruited people who have research excellence as lecturers," Professor Saks explained. "They bring research glitz, but they are also involved in teaching, which frees other people to do research, too."

However, not every university to benefit from a QR windfall is following this trend.

Bedfordshire has said that it will not use its QR budget to employ core academic staff.

"We are employing people to generate more (research) activity, but they are typically postdocs and the expectation is that they will generate their own grant income," said Andrew Slade, pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise.

This approach allows Bedfordshire to be more "fleet of foot" than research-intensive universities, which need QR funding to pay the salaries of large numbers of staff, he said.

What is making one of the biggest differences for pockets of excellence are large rises in postgraduate research (PGR) funding, a distinct component of QR, Professor Slade explained. "We have started getting funding for our research students in a way that was not possible before."

This reallocation of PGR funding has proved controversial. Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, has argued that although the best research should be funded wherever it is found, PhD-level education should be more concentrated.

Building on success

The uncovering of pockets of excellence has led the universities that house them to think strategically about how to maximise their research successes.

In an effort to discern where the biggest pay-offs will be, Lincoln has centralised the funds it receives from the RAE and asked departments to bid for money from the pot. "It is not a blunderbuss approach ... research excellence requires real concentration of resources on selected areas," Professor Saks said.

Uclan has ploughed its QR cash back into the areas that earned it - but only after examining the "vision statements" outlining spending plans that it asked interdisciplinary research clusters to present.

Innovative and creative ways of spending the money also abound.

Some universities, such as Lincoln, are investing in their lecturers by enrolling them on PhD courses. Others are setting cash aside to support staff research sabbaticals or training in writing grant proposals.

Concentrated threat

However, there are clouds on the horizon. It is possible that the RAE funding formula could be rejigged this year to favour a more concentrated approach.

This could be done by setting a "minimum threshold" for the size of units to be funded or even by abandoning funding for 2* (internationally recognised) work.

The recent grant letter from Lord Mandelson to the Higher Education Funding Council for England makes clear the Government's preference for research concentration and seeks advice on how to achieve this "in time to inform the 2010-11 allocations".

Could the answer be more collaboration between pockets of excellence and research-intensive universities? Traditionally teaching-focused institutions with newly revealed research stars argue that any attempt to impose collaborations would be a mistake, not least because they are already taking place nationally and internationally.

"Collaboration is a good thing, but researchers will choose their partners globally," Professor Ebdon said. "It would be a silly constraint to say to pockets: 'Your collaborations should be with this kind of English university.'?"


For a story of success in a nationally emerging area of research, Bernard Gibbon is adamant that you need look no further than the pocket of excellence that is the School of Nursing and Caring Sciences at the University of Central Lancashire.

Its focus is on clinical nursing, such as care for stroke victims, and its work was rated 3b in the 2001 research assessment exercise, only just qualifying for QR funding.

Dr Gibbon, the head of school, attributes its improved performance in the 2008 RAE to an injection of "research capability funding" for emerging research areas after RAE 2001.

About 23 staff were entered in the nursing and midwifery unit in 2008, and 15 per cent of their work was graded 4* and 35 per cent 3*.

The school, which has seen its QR funding rise from £100,000 to £400,000, has ploughed the money it earned back into its activities.

Its spending has been designed to increase both the volume and quality of research, and has included a new professorship, a new postdoc and five new PhD studentships, three of which are part time.

"Next time around we want to do even better," Dr Gibbon added.

"Although we want more outputs in more high impact-factor journals and more PhD student completions, we are not doing this research for our own status. We are doing it to make an impact on patient care."


Mark Lewis moved from University College London to join the University of Bedfordshire's pocket of excellence in sports-related studies in September 2009.

After 20 years at a Russell Group university, he decided to move with his research council grant to the post of research professor of exercise, biochemistry and cell biology because the idea of being a big fish in a smaller pond appealed to him.

At Bedfordshire, he heads both a research group at the Institute for Sport and Physical Activity Research and the department of sport and exercise sciences.

"I like the atmosphere of somewhere smaller and a bit more intimate, and I am interested in applying what I do in real situations," he explained.

"In a Russell Group university, how do you prioritise one excellent group over another? At somewhere like Bedfordshire, there are only small pockets of excellence, so it is quite easy - and being a research scientist in one of those areas is fantastic."

He still has links to UCL, where he is an honorary professor, and is also busy establishing collaborations with other universities.

Professor Lewis said his feeling was that across the sector there has been a migration of staff from Russell Group universities to new institutions.

"In Bedfordshire there are people who have come from Imperial College London, King's College London, UCL and the universities of Bristol and Southampton, so something is going on.

"I think they are seeing it as an opportunity, and they don't tend to be just junior people ... Bricks and mortar don't do research, people do - and people can be anywhere."


The University of Lincoln's School of Computer Science did not enter the 2001 research assessment exercise, but for 2008 it submitted nine academics to the computer science and informatics unit.

The results showed 15 per cent of its work to be world leading (4*) and 35 per cent to be internationally excellent (3*).

"We went from being pretty much teaching-centred to being in the top third of departments (factoring in those that did not enter)," said David Cobham, head of school.

The result - a new annual RAE income of about £300,000 - is being translated into three new research-active senior lecturer appointments, two of which have already been made; two fully funded and two partially funded PhD studentships; and a ring-fenced £25,000 annual pot for scholars to use for exploratory activities, such as buying out teaching time for research or attending extra conferences.

Dr Cobham said: "Because we have increased our status, we are now attracting very high-quality applicants to jobs ... they are people from quality institutions who are already RAE submittable."

The plan for the future, focused on four key research strengths, is to undertake more collaborations with "high-quality" partners, to work more closely with local industry, and improve the school's record of winning funding.

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