Star signs and bad omens

Our willingness to end funding for 2* work bodes ill for the future of research at elites and new universities alike, says Michael Rayner

April 28, 2011



Credit: Marcus Butt


There is a curious, potentially dangerous and divisive mantra being chanted across much of higher education, which pronounces that funding for "internationally recognised" research - work rated 2* in the research assessment exercise - is dead. But before joining the chorus, perhaps the sector should take stock of what this actually means.

First, this approach tacitly accepts that internationally recognised research is not worth funding. Yet isn't this standard what we have been aiming to achieve over recent years? Indeed, the Scottish Government's Green Paper, Building a Smarter Future: Towards a Sustainable Scottish Solution for the Future of Higher Education, outlines its ambitions for research in language that translates best as 2* performance. What possible benefit can there be in pulling the plug on funding 2* work?

Second, funding councils and governments secure a comprehensive overview of higher education-based research activity and quality once every five or six years. This comes from broad institutional participation in research assessment. Engagement is burdensome but voluntary, and many institutions secure relatively modest funding. But there has been (until now) just about enough funding to persuade them to put together comprehensive submissions.

However, if 2* funding disappears for good, the game's a bogey, and we may reach the point where institutions will decide either not to take part or to submit only their very best staff (that is, the 3* and 4* performers). If so, the resultant submissions will be a pale reflection of the genuine breadth of research being undertaken across the UK, which will be a considerable loss. How then will we be able to calibrate exactly how good, and how widespread, the UK research base is?

Third on my list is the frequent gripe that research assessment is a demoralising and dispiriting event that hits higher education only every five or six years, but nevertheless drives virtually all institutional decisions about research all the rest of the time. Staff whose contributions are included in the research assessment exercise tend to feel a sense of vindication of their very existence, whereas staff whose contributions are not submitted may feel vulnerable and undervalued. Staff who achieve a good results profile look forward to increased power, special treatment and reasonable funding, whereas the rest are fearful of being disempowered and disenfranchised.

With this in mind, it should be understood that the funding councils' application of an ever-steeper quality threshold before awarding funding will not simply exaggerate the differences between the tiers of institutions in the higher education landscape, but is also likely to exaggerate the tiers that exist between and across staff within institutions. Everybody who is interested in, and passionate about, higher education should be concerned about the potential for such divisiveness, which could lead to unprecedented disharmony and, at an extreme, internal destabilisation.

It is regrettable then that the public assurances likely to be offered by the "research-intensive" universities, namely that they will use their future research excellence framework resources to support a broad portfolio of research across their institutions, can be taken with a reasonably sized pinch of salt. In any case, wouldn't such assurances undermine the intention of concentrating funding on extreme excellence in the first place? In reality, in the dog-eat-dog world of higher education we have created, surely the staff that generate funding council research grants will have an a priori claim on the resultant income, especially in financially pressured times?

Let me be explicit. The removal of funding for 2* research may be as significant and dangerous for elite UK institutions as it is for the rest of the sector. Furthermore, institutions in the top third of the current RAE tables will end up vying for position in a very different structure. Some highly respected institutions may become also-rans, propping up the bottom of the new order. Heaven help any elite institution that drops out of the top tier!

Instead, shouldn't we celebrate the success of our sector in the development of broad-based, internationally recognised research excellence? Are we really foolish enough to kill off large swathes of this excellence by removing funding for 2* research? Could this act move us from a virtuous cycle of general research improvement to a vicious cycle instead?

Finally, an argument can be made that 3* and 4* research can exist only where there is a solid underpinning of 2* quality work. Do we really want to undermine the foundations of our own success?

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