Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

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 alone.


  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 its organisation.

  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 research.

  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.


  8.  RAE-related research funding is part of the dual support system—a balance of core and project funding, of retrospective and prospective assessment—which 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 by universities.

  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 universities—not 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 maintained—and this was reinforced by the recent HEFCE review—that 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 recruitment—the 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.

RAE 2001

  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% in 1996).

  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 research.


  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 work).

  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

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 24 April 2002