Memorandum submitted by Universities UK
1. Universities UK is pleased to submit
this memorandum to the Science and Technology Select Committee.
The RAE has great influence on research in science and technology.
Universities UK's policy on the RAE is, of course, designed to
address research across the board rather than science and technology
2. University research in the UK is a success
story. The dual support system for funding research, of which
the RAE forms an important part, has delivered excellence; UK
academics are among the best in the world. The problem we face
is the inadequate level of overall research funding, rather than
3. RAE 2001 provides evidence of an outstanding
achievement by universities and is to be welcomed. Continued improvement
in research quality had been anticipated, but the results exceeded
expectations. Universities have delivered a world class performance.
4. The highest grades have in 2001, for
the first time, been confirmed by systematic international verification.
The RAE process is robust and its outcomes are reliable. The improved
ratings in RAE 2001 represent substantial increases in quality
at all levels. The result is matched by evidence of citations,
external research income, and the UK's comparative international
performance (including success rates in European research funding),
which all confirm that the UK punches above its weight in university
5. Universities now expect Government to
deliver its side of the bargain, by finding the funding to match
this improved performance. This is an area that is vital to delivering
the Government's priority of competitiveness and a knowledge-driven
economy. The Government should invest in success. Detail on future
funding needs may be found in the Universities UK bid to SR 2002.
The Select Committee could usefully exert its influence accordingly.
6. The alternative will either penalise
the highest performers or increase funding selectivity undesirably
and remove funding from those who are developing. The risk is
demoralisation of the very academic community that has delivered
this stunning result.
7. There are shortcomings in any process,
and the RAE has its share of critics. It has evolved over the
years and will doubtless need to do so again, following RAE 2001.
But RAE-related research funding has proved an effective instrument
in maintaining research excellence, creating management flexibility
for research investment and acting as an incentive for improvement.
The university research base has measurably improved over successive
RAEs, with much of the change attributable to strategic management
and commitment on the part of individuals.
THE RAE AND
8. RAE-related research funding is part
of the dual support systema balance of core and project
funding, of retrospective and prospective assessmentwhich
is vital to maintain the health of the UK research base. Within
dual support, RAE-related funding is core funding: it is used
to employ staff to undertake research and to build infrastructure,
to support new and young researchers, and to support innovative
and high risk lines of research which may not attract funding
from elsewhere. It provides the basis on which universities seek
project funding from external sponsors (including Research Councils,
charities, European funding), collaborate with industry, etc.
(It is in fact a concern to us that rises in project funding in
recent years have not been matched by increases in RAE-related
funding, which has led to imbalance in the dual support system).
9. Limited resources and the need for value
for money make research funding necessarily selective. Selective
funding, focused on the development and maintenance of quality,
makes a vital contribution to a strong and diverse research base,
contributing to a `knowledge-based economy' through the generation
and application of knowledge and the development of trained minds.
10. Universities UK has consistently maintained
that research assessment is necessary to underpin the selective
funding of research. The RAE provides evidence that research funding
is distributed in accordance with quality and is responsibly managed
11. Within its limitations the RAE is seen
as broadly fit for purpose and has credibility. The effect of
years of selective funding has been a high degree of concentration
in the distribution of research funds, a system that has enabled
the sector to deliver value for money through the development
of centres of excellence, while also remaining accessible to new
players and rewarding improvement. Broadly speaking, the RAE approach
provides clear incentives, avoids complacency or ossification
among those who are successful, and is open to developing areas
of research, changes in research performance and new entrants.
It enables funding to follow quality, wherever it is to be found,
whatever its scale.
12. The RAE is an important part of a UK-wide
basis for research assessment and funding policy, which nevertheless
gives the various funding councils the ability to meet their own
specific needs, and it provides a useful basis on which universities
can contribute to regional development, while avoiding short termism
and parochial pressures.
13: The RAE has a profound effect on universitiesnot
only in terms of funding council research funding, but also in
other sources of funding, and attracting staff and students. Universities
now take a much more strategic approach to their investment in
research and its management.
14. The RAE has evolved over time, and further
evolution will doubtless occur. The HEFCE review envisaged new
units of assessment (as needed), panels making judgments drawing
on evidence provided specifically for their discipline, reviews
of the way charitable funding is supported, personal statements
for those staff for whom a standard submission is not appropriate,
and more collaboration in research training to ensure appropriate
support. There are also issues about the ability of an exercise
held once every five years to meet the needs of strategic development
and emerging research funding priorities.
15. Universities UK has consistently maintainedand
this was reinforced by the recent HEFCE reviewthat the
present levels of selectivity in the UK are about right, and lead
to a spread of research funds across institutions sufficient to
maintain dynamism and diversity. The current system allows world-class
research to stay at the cutting edge and militates against complacency,
but at the same time enables new centres and subjects to develop.
The distribution also facilitates spin-off benefits for teaching
and recruitmentthe opportunity to do research is one of
the main ways in which universities attract and retain staff.
16. The evidence shows that the UK system
is no less selective than that in the US. It is not clear that
there are major benefits to be gained from an increase in the
steepness of the slope of selectivity or for a heightening of
the entry level for access to RAE-related funding. Indeed, access
to relatively modest sums of research funding can have significant
impact on a university's ability to contribute to innovation and
can in due course lead to high RAE ratings, as RAE 2001 shows.
17. The HEFCE review outcome undertook to
protect the funding of the highest rated units in the event of
limited funding but also to find funding at some level for units
rated 3a and 3b (especially significant, given that other funding
streams for research development, eg CollR, were discontinued).
Universities UK supported this recommendation. Protection of funding
for top-rated units is important to support excellence, but it
is also important to reward improvement and motivate research
development. Research funding needs to encourage research in developing
disciplines and research of regional importance, as well as research
of national and international excellence.
18. The results of RAE 2001 were published
on 14 December 2001. They confirm the excellence of university
research in the UK and show major increases in high quality over
the past five years:
64% of the research submitted was
rated as of national or international levels of excellence (it
was 43% in 1996);
55% of research staff now work in
units that contain work of international excellence (it was 31%
19. This is the first occasion that all
submissions rated 5 or 5* (and a sample of those rated 4) have
been systematically referred for international confirmation.
20. At the same time, excellence is widely
distributed: 61 institutions have one or more top rated 5* departments,
and 96 have one or more departments rated at least 5. This shows
that large numbers of institutions, including many smaller ones,
are competing at the highest levels. There was also general improvement
in grades at the lower levels, and many fewer units (6%, as opposed
to 24%) and staff (3% as opposed to 12%) rated as 1 or 2. This
improvement shows the impact of funding provided in the last RAE.
21. The results also show improvement in
specific subject areas of growing economic importance, such as
the creative industries. It should be emphasised that much university
research is closely related to the needs of business and the community.
22. The results, strong beyond expectations,
have generated acute funding problems. Funding the new results
at current levels of funding clearly requires significant extra
funds. Without such additional funding, the unit of resource will
suffer serious dilution, with particular impact on the highest
performing units. On the other hand, protection of 5* and 5 rated
units will, without additional funding, have severe implications
for the funding of other units. There are particular concerns
about the funding available for units rated 3a and 3b, which may
contain research in subjects of strategic and emerging importance.
Universities have demonstrated through the RAE the quality of
their research staff: it is vital that sufficient investment is
forthcoming to meet the development and future needs of university
23. Research funding policy was subject
to wide-ranging review by the various funding councils in the
course of 2000-1. The reviews confirmed that on many measures,
including value for money, the work of university researchers
in the UK is among the best in the world.
24. We support the conclusion of the HEFCE
review that research funds should continue to be allocated selectively
in accordance with the quality of research and that funding should
not be directly or explicitly concentrated in a limited number
of research-intensive institutions.
25. The RAE has always had its critics (who
indeed include Vice-Chancellors), and the bureaucratic burdens
it imposes are familiar. The HEFCE review found that a number
of popular criticisms of the RAE are difficult to substantiate,
however, e.g. that the RAE favours quantity over quality, or is
not cost effective, or promotes and distorts staff movement. The
recruitment of business members of panels in RAE 2001 and greater
clarity about the diversity of outputs acceptable were an attempt
to ensure that academic research was not privileged over research
relevant to user communities. But there are clearly challenges
inherent in a subject-based approach when it comes to interdisciplinary
work, and the RAE's `units of assessment' do not always map easily
on to the organisation of universities nor the way in which much
research is conducted. This can inhibit recognition of emerging
or innovative research, which is often inter-disciplinary or at
the margins of traditional disciplines (although a HEFCE study
did not find that the RAE systematically disadvantages interdisciplinary
26. It is sometimes argued that the RAE
encourages attention to research at the expense of other activities,
such as teaching and knowledge transfer: in our view, if so, this
ought principally to be addressed through adequate incentives
for these activities, rather than through distorting research
funding mechanisms that in their own terms are effective.
27. It is difficult to see how the funding
councils could distribute research funds selectively without some
form of research assessment. The recent reviews did not identify
a credible alternative. The Select Committee could usefully encourage
the Government to ensure that future research assessment builds
on the foundations of the RAE and takes into account the experience
and results of RAE 2001. Criteria for the effectiveness of research
assessment should include lightness of touch, minimal distortion,
cost-effectiveness, and optimal frequency. In particular the role
of the RAE needs to be examined within the debate about reducing
the cost and burden of accountability on universities.
28. Above all, however, the funding councils
should aim to secure increases in the amount of research funding
available for distribution, in order to allow improving departments
to benefit and the funding for top-rated units to be maintained.
The Select Committee could usefully call on Government to find
additional funding merited by the improvement in research performance
documented by RAE 2001.
29. The consequence of a failure by Government
to reward the improvement in research ratings in RAE 2001 will,
it seems likely, be an increase in selectivity in order to protect
the resources of top-rated departments. This will be at the expense
of the great strengths shown in the rest of the sector. It will
deny essential funding for developing research groups, research
areas and collaborative research endeavours. It will inhibit the
continued development of the UK research base, for which successive
RAEs have shown robust evidence.
18 January 2002