The government has produced no evidence to back its plans to concentrate research -a move that would serve only to stunt regional economies and handicap UK higher education in the international arena, according to a study for Universities UK.
The report says there is little or no justification put forward by the government or the Higher Education Funding Council for England for why research money must be concentrated in fewer world-class departments at the expense of lower-rated departments whose work is judged to be of national importance.
It points to implications for UK regional economies, saying that the East Midlands and Wales would be particularly hard hit. The West Midlands and Northeast would also fail to prosper. Universities in these areas have relatively few world-class departments.
Only London, the Southeast and the East - home to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, University College London and Imperial College London - would benefit from further research concentration, it says.
The study is the latest salvo in the battle to save research in departments mostly rated nationally excellent in the 2001 research assessment exercise and graded 4. Hefce plans to cut funds to these departments in real terms.
Departments rated 5 and above will get more cash.
Ivor Crewe, president of UUK and vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, said: "The policy of increased research concentration is likely to have unintended consequences. It is disturbing that considerations of such far-reaching importance should so far have been advanced with virtually no supporting evidence.
"UUK believes that any new policies with major repercussions should be based on a thorough examination of what the sector and the country stand to lose and gain."
The study concludes: "Overall, we found no clear evidence that there is a problem in UK national research performance that needs to be addressed by structural change. If such a problem were to emerge, there is no clear evidence that research concentration would prove to be the best way of addressing it.
"It is evident, however, that the further concentration of research funding would carry with it the risk of reduced research capacity for some regions, the failure to achieve some institutional missions and a reduction in the diversity of the UK's research base."
UUK commissioned the study from Leeds-based consultants Evidence. The work sought to answer five questions:
- What is the comparative international performance of the UK?
- What is the international standard of performance within the UK research base?
- What is the relationship between diversity and development in the research base?
- What evidence is there for the benefits of research concentration?
- How would funding concentration affect regional profiles?
The study warns that cutting funding to emerging areas of excellence jeopardises future research performance. It says: "All the units associated with grade 4 have improved [between the 1996 and 2001 RAE], units promoted from grade 4 to grade 5 were performing better than average and units promoted from grade 3 had hauled themselves up to performing at a standard that equates to a world average dominated by research in G8 countries.
"The grade 4 units appear to be competitive in international terms and continue to make a substantive contribution to the UK's overall research performance.
"There has been a dynamic aspect to the performance of this research platform that must contribute to the overall strength and diversity of the UK research base. Grade 3s have evolved into grade 4s while the best grade 4s have evolved into grade 5s. It seems inevitable that the withdrawal of or reduction in funding from these areas would affect future research competitiveness."
Overall, the UK research base is prospering. Among members of the Group of Eight leading industrialised countries, Germany is improving its performance relative to the UK in some areas. But the UK has still improved against average global benchmarks.
The study states: "The UK's comparative international research performance improved progressively in terms of average research impact (citations per paper) over the last decade. The UK's share of global citations is still increasing in all fields except social sciences and engineering. This improvement, in the face of growing international competition, is surprising given the UK's previous strong position."
- London faces an £8 million funding gap as the result of reforms to the way in which teaching is funded. Hefce plans to adjust the amount of money it pays for the teaching of subjects such as engineering and media studies. If its proposals are fully implemented, institutions in the London area will get £8 million less for teaching from next year.