News & Views item - January 2009



Britain's RAE Demonstrates Its Futility as the Russell Group Flails to Keep Lion's Share of HEFCE Funding. (January 16, 2009)

One of the findings of Britain's 2008 Research Assessment Exercise was that of the 159 institutions that participated top-rated research was found in 150 of them. In all 17% of the publications submitted by the 52,400 academics were judged to be "world-leading" (awarded the top 4* rating), and it is a safe bet that if not all, nearly all, would have been peer reviewed prior to the work being awarded resources.


The Guardian's Anthea Lipsett reports: "At present, 82% of research funding in England goes to just 29 universities... Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own funding bodies but allocate money on the basis of the RAE."


The Russell Group of 20 large research-intensive universities, which garners the lion's share of research funding claims it risks "haemorrhaging money" in allocations which may be made based on the 2008 RAE. It argues that funding should be based not only on the quality, but also the volume of research submitted to the exercise, which, not surprisingly, would maintain the status quo.


Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell group, told The Guardian: "We're very worried about a haemorrhaging of money from research-intensive universities and we're keen to remind people of the importance of critical mass and maintaining world-class universities. We need to fund and foster excellence. The World Bank work has articulated the need for a proportion of world-class universities in each country because it's so important for economic growth and furthering of the knowledge economy."


Of course one might argue that that work in the 130 institutions which are not in the Russell Group and where that difficult to define "critical mass" was lacking but had 4* publications, demonstrated that they were more worthy of support because the researchers had to be intrinsically better in order to make the grade.


Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group of 18 universities, not part of the Russell Group said: "We support research concentration but the RAE is a competition in which there are, and have always been, winners and losers. We expect Hefce [Higher Education Funding Council for England] to stick to its commitment to fund recognised research excellence wherever it is found," while Professor Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of the Million+ group of about 60 post-92 universities, said: "The new method has shown a much wider spread of excellence in research than previously. There's leading world-class research in virtually every university. The big fear is that [Hefce] will introduce some kind of disregard for pockets of excellence."


Professor Paul Curran, vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University (formerly Bournemouth Municipal College, Bournemouth College of Technology, Dorset Institute of Higher Education then Bournemouth Polytechnic), said: "We've only been a university for 16 years and not surprisingly many long-standing universities have received 100 times more [in core research funding from Hefce] over recent years but yet almost 40% of our output is 4*+ 3* and not many of the big players are getting much over 60%."


According to the published results of the RAE based on staff numbers the percentage of staff submitting papers for evaluations from Bournemouth University was only a fourth that from Cambridge or Oxford and of those submitted 8% rated  4* while Oxbridge gained 4* ratings for 32%.


Overall, the widespread of published research rated 4* and 3* despite the bias of funding toward the Russell Group suggests that the RAE has nothing to recommend it; in fact the argument that it may be counterproductive could be difficult to refute.