The rise and fall of research powers

Why have some institutions climbed the RAE rankings while others drifted down? Institutions offer explanations for their performance

January 1, 2009


Queen Mary, University of London
13th in Table of Excellence, up from 48th in RAE 2001
Submitted 687 staff in 29 subjects

Queen Mary, University of London, had a meteoric rise in Times Higher Education's Table of Excellence. So perhaps it is not surprising that the man who oversaw the improvement was invited earlier this year to join the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills as its director-general of science and research.

Adrian Smith was principal of Queen Mary for a decade before he left in August to take up his new role.

Philip Ogden, Queen Mary's acting principal, said Professor Smith "was a fantastic leader" who "played a tremendous role" in the institution's success.

Professor Ogden said staff were "absolutely delighted" with Queen Mary's results in the research assessment exercise, which were the culmination of a strategy that had been developed since the 2001 RAE.

This involved "thinking through where the frontiers of research lie", building on existing successes and investing in new members of staff - both professors and junior researchers with promise.

What particularly pleased Professor Ogden was that the institution's achievements cover diverse subject areas.

"I think we've done well across the board - we've done exceptionally well in medicine and dentistry, in quite large chunks of the humanities and social sciences, and in good bits of science and engineering as well. Part of the strategy was always to maintain the breadth of the institution - we are a large higher education institution and we want to be good at a broad range of things."

Professor Ogden would not disclose the proportion of staff entered into the RAE, but said it was "fairly high".

He hopes the good results will mean more funding, and he believes students will benefit.

"I think students are very keen to be taught by people who are leaders in their field.

"At the same time as we've had a research strategy, we've also had a student-support strategy which we've been working very hard on to make sure that we deliver the highest-quality teaching that we can. And we've had a lot of investment in facilities for both research and teaching."

Staff at the institution can look forward to a celebratory party in the New Year. His message to them is: "Fantastic - you've done really well!"


University of York
10th, up from 18th
Submitted 654 staff in 25 subjects

Brian Cantor is modest when it comes to describing his role in his university's RAE performance.

"I am very fortunate to have a tremendous group of academics," said the vice-chancellor, who arrived from the University of Oxford to take the job in October 2002, not long after the previous RAE. In his six years at the helm, the university has gone from strength to strength, taking tenth spot in the Times Higher Education Table of Excellence this year, up from 18th.

York's strongest performances were in English language and literature, and in health services research. It topped the subject tables in both disciplines. The university also improved dramatically in sociology, where it came ahead of three departments given the top rating of 5* under the 2001 RAE.

The strategy since 2001, Professor Cantor explained, has been to concentrate not on "RAE performance" and "gameplaying" but on "outstanding and innovative" research.

"Our appointments have not been made on the basis of (potential) RAE performance; we have not moved lots of people on to teaching-only contracts; and we have submitted almost all of our eligible staff."

Neither has there been any major departmental restructuring, and the approach has been to support all staff and departments, hence the high submission rate.

"Our view is that if they are not doing quite as well, it is best to work with them to do better," Professor Cantor said, who described the atmosphere at York as "friendly", "inclusive" and "interdisciplinary".


Birmingham City University
Ranked 65th, up from 91st
Submitted 87 staff in seven subjects

"I think we have always had pockets of excellence inside the institution; it is just that we have been hiding our light under a bushel and not telling the world about it."

This is how David Maguire, pro vice-chancellor at Birmingham City University, sums up the outstanding performance of his institution in RAE 2008. Birmingham City not only has the highest percentage of 4* research (17 per cent) of any of the post-1992 institutions; it also beats some of the research-intensive universities on this measure.

The university, he explained, took a "very serious and hard look" at its research strategy and its commitment to research after the previous RAE. It decided that it wanted to be "research engaged", playing to its strengths in applied research.

"We organised our resources, built an organisation that could manage those and decided on a strategy of concentration (to build prestige)," Professor Maguire said. "We took the strategy that we wanted to aim for excellence because our previous experience was that only the (highest ratings of) 5*, 5 and 4 got money."

Given that there was not much research funding for the institution after 2001, staff were encouraged to engage in external fundraising to support their work.

The RAE adjudged all seven units entered by Birmingham City to contain a proportion of 4* activity.

Professor Maguire singled out art and design, where the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design achieved a profile which includes 30 per cent of work at 4* level and 30 per cent at 3* level. The performance in music was also strong: a 3a rating in 2001 climbed to 15 per cent in the 4* category. "We are going to get money where we never got money before," he said. "I think you can now say that we are a main research university."


Aston University
52nd, down from 34th
Submitted 237 staff in four subjects

Aston University is among the institution that slipped significantly in the Times Higher Education league table, but Graham Hooley, the deputy vice-chancellor, insisted that he had no regrets about the institution's strategy.

"We wouldn't do anything differently if we were to go back in again tomorrow," he said.

"What we attempted to do was to increase the proportion of our staff who were included.

"In the RAE 2001, about 70 per cent of our academic staff were included in the submission, and we felt at the time that that was harsh on the people who were excluded, who were excluded on judgments of quality, obviously.

"What we wanted to do this time was to achieve an improvement on the grades that we got, but to do that at the same time as increasing the percentage submission of staff.

"We've gone up from 70 per cent to 88 per cent of staff submitted, and that included quite a large number of early-career researchers - about 20 per cent of our submission is early-career researchers, so the total submission increased by 30 per cent.

"I do notice that for some of the institutions that have done better in the league table than we have, the indicative proportions of staff submitted are somewhat lower. That's what may have counted against us.

"Clearly there are a lot of different ways you can cut this, and we're looking at the volume of research that is rated 3* or 4* to see where we stand in terms of the international impact of the research that we do.

"When you look at it like that, we come in quite different positions from other weightings.

"But the main point is that we want to create an inclusive culture at Aston. We wanted to include as many people as possible, and we feel that we have achieved that."


Brunel University
63rd, down from 52nd
Submitted 534 staff in 24 subjects

"Like many universities, Brunel's grade-point average has declined compared with 2001 results because the 2008 RAE is fundamentally different from the 2001 assessment," said Chris Jenks, vice-chancellor of Brunel University.

While the 2001 RAE provided each department with a single, summative research-quality grade, the 2008 RAE gave each department a profile showing the proportion of research activity that fell into each of the four quality levels, from "world leading" (4*) to "nationally recognised" (1*).

Professor Jenks said that when the number of staff put forward for assessment was considered - "a much more realistic reflection of an institution's commitment to sustainable research" - Brunel's position improves markedly.

"On a very positive note, the number of research staff deemed to be of international standard has tripled to 82 per cent, 10 per cent of our research staff are considered world leading, and the number of staff submitted has increased at four times the rate of the sector average," he added.

"This represents a huge step forward for Brunel compared with 2001. What's more, 21 per cent of Brunel's submissions were early-career researchers, a clear indication of a sustainable research culture."


University of Cardiff
Ranked 22nd, down from 8th
Submitted 1,030 staff in 34 subjects

The University of Cardiff insists that there is a simple explanation for its slide down the Times Higher Education Table of Excellence - its merger with the University of Wales College of Medicine in 2004.

This year's rankings, a spokesman said, simply did not compare "like with like".

The University of Wales College of Medicine was 48th in the table at the time of the 2001 RAE. If the two institutions had been combined back then, "we would, we believe, have been 22nd - exactly the same position as we are now in the table in 2008", the spokesman said.

Based on "research power" - in which the quality ratings are combined with the volume of staff included for assessment under the RAE - Cardiff said it would be 15th in a UK-wide league table.

"The assessment has, once again, highlighted the world-leading research being undertaken at the university, with close to 20 per cent of all submitted research being graded at 4*."


University of Wales, Lampeter
Ranked 83rd, down from 56th
Submitted 60 staff in five subjects

Lampeter's relatively low ranking can be explained, according to a university spokeswoman, by its status as "a specialised institution with a small number of submissions", which means that its position in league tables is likely to vary.

"A better comparator is to consider our position in the subject league tables for our largest submissions such as archaeology, history and anthropology and theology and religious studies," she said.

"Here we compare favourably with (large research-intensive) Russell Group universities such as Cardiff and Glasgow.

"Indeed, in theology and religious studies, where 90 per cent of our research was ranked in the international categories, we made the fifth-largest submission in the UK. We are now the leading institution in Wales."

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