The UK must abandon the idea that excellent research should be funded wherever it is found and concentrate resources on just 25 to 30 universities, the chair of the Russell Group of large research-intensive institutions has argued.
Michael Arthur, vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, used a conference last week to argue that the UK would be on the road to "mediocrity" if the forthcoming research excellence framework continued the trend of spreading funding more thinly across the sector.
The debate has received fresh impetus since the Higher Education Funding Council for England launched a consultation last month on the REF, which will replace the research assessment exercise in distributing about £1.5 billion in annual research funding from 2014.
It is understood that some form of concentration will be endorsed by the Government's framework for higher education, due shortly.
Warning that he was being "deliberately provocative" to make his point, Professor Arthur said that while funding excellence "wherever it is found" is "great" when there is a limitless pot of cash, in times of fiscal constraint it "comes at a price".
"If we carry on with that trend ... and take money away from those universities that have been highly successful in the past, we end up with a progression to mediocrity," he told nearly 300 university and research leaders gathered at the Royal Society for the Times Higher Education-sponsored Higher Education Policy Institute event.
'Loss of international excellence'
The 2008 RAE identified some excellent research being carried out in teaching-led universities, which has been funded accordingly, Professor Arthur said. But this meant that the funding pot has been spread "significantly more thinly", leaving the sector facing the potential loss of international excellence, he added.
"How many well-funded research universities do we need?" he asked. "I don't believe it is 169. I'd like to suggest it is somewhere between 25 and 30."
He suggested a scenario for future funding in which the top 30 institutions increase their share of funding by 10 per cent - up from the current 80 per cent to 90 per cent.
The top 20 would receive 75 per cent, the top 10 would receive 52.5 per cent and the top 5 would receive 35 per cent (up from the current figures of 69, 49 and 32.5 per cent respectively). These figures, he said, would be in line with the funding that followed the 2001 RAE.
Professor Arthur also accused policymakers of putting the cart before the horse in developing detailed plans for the REF before deciding on concentration levels.
"You need a policy first, then you design the REF to fit," he told Times Higher Education.
Professor Arthur's comments prompted a robust response from David Maguire, pro vice-chancellor for corporate development at Birmingham City University.
"I disagree with almost everything you've said," he told Professor Arthur. "The notion of concentration is against the peer-review process and basic democracy."
Concentration creates productivity
Professor Arthur said that all research to date showed concentration was an important factor in productivity, and argued that without a clear policy in favour of it, "(our) international standing, profile and performance will drop away".
The conference was divided on whether the REF proposals as they stand would dilute or concentrate research compared with RAE 2008.
Professor Arthur told Times Higher Education that "there is the potential for it to dilute more. I don't think we would do any worse than the last RAE - but there was dilution last time," he said.
But in an online opinion piece on timeshighereducation.co.uk last week, Ian M. Marshall, pro vice-chancellor for research at Coventry University, argued that the REF plans would "push new universities and their many pockets of excellence back into the shadows" by disproportionately rewarding the traditional research elite.
He said that new universities would be hit by its 2012 deadline for submissions, as there would not be enough time for the additional funding received from RAE 2008 to make an impact. The REF also favours larger submissions, which would benefit research-intensive institutions, he added.
Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of Hefce, argued that the Government must set the direction of policy before funding chiefs began to consider concentration.
This week, Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, is due to warn that pressure for an "overt" policy to concentrate research funding will increase.
In a speech at Queen Mary, University of London on the future of higher education, delivered after Times Higher Education went to press, he is scheduled to say that while UUK has argued in the past for funding to support excellent research wherever it is found, there are now "difficult decisions ahead".
Professor Arthur also criticised current plans in the REF to base 25 per cent of the overall assessment of a department's research quality on the economic and social impact of the research. The 25 per cent figure, he said, could mean that between £400 million and £500 million in funding was determined based on the measure of research impact.
"I suspect that (the Russell Group) will be quite competitive but it is the volatility that this throws in. This is an enormous sum of money and it is potentially destabilising. We could do spectacularly well (but) we don't know what is going to happen," he said.
He said he believed that an impact factor had been tried in Australia, "and there it has spread the money very thinly".
Professor Arthur also warned that there were many practical difficulties in measuring impact, with variable time lags before impact becomes apparent and variability among disciplines, and with "deep concerns" in the humanities and social sciences over how their subjects would fare.
"That is a lot of money to introduce as a new variable that we have not had before," he said.
He suggested that around 10 per cent for impact might be more appropriate, unless it was demonstrated that impact could really be "accurately and reproducibly" assessed.
He also said the 10-15 year time lag proposed was too short for the "massive impact" of blue-skies research to be felt and suggested it should be extended to 15-30 years.
'RULES OF A GAME THAT NO LONGER EXISTS'
Universities in the 21st century can no longer be placed on a single scale, so it makes "no sense" to conduct sector-wide competitions such as the research excellence framework that trap institutions in an all-consuming "tournament of value".
So said Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, who used the Times Higher Education-sponsored Higher Education Policy Institute event to argue that the sector is playing "by the rules of a game that no longer exists".
Describing himself as a "maverick voice" who had suffered a "crisis of faith" in the system, Professor Thrift argued that while the research assessment exercise had started out as a "sensible means of differentiation", it and the REF that will replace it had become a "game of relativity" that no longer suited any institution, given the sector's diversity.
"This variety is no big deal, but ... every mechanism still acts as though unity was the case, that you can basically place all universities on one scale from top to bottom. It is not fair to anyone."
He suggested alternative methods to distribute research funding, including "different competitions for different universities", or a process under which "consortiums of universities" apply for money and divide it among themselves.