Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the University of Plymouth

  1.  The University of Plymouth is the eight largest University in the UK with over 27,000 students. It is a major provider of higher education in the south west peninsula of England. It has a mission to be a world-class teaching and research University. Approximately 10 per cent of its income is derived from research activity. It is generally regarded as one of the top three most successful post-1992 Universities. We are pleased to be able to provide written evidence for the Select Committee Enquiry on the Higher Education Funding Councils' Research Assessment Exercise.

  2.  In previous consultations, we have always made clear the view of the University of Plymouth that we accept, given the lack of funds for research, funding has to be allocated selectively on the basis of some assessment of the quality of research. The Research Assessment Exercise as currently conducted has up to now proved to be the best means of allocating such money, although it is necessarily distorted by historical investment, or rather under-investment. We have also consistently argued against greater selectivity than has hitherto been practised since this will stifle innovation and prevent the emergence of new Centres of Excellence. There is a real danger that if selectivity becomes greater than presently experienced, then the research system in the UK will ossify.

  3.  We welcome the outcome of the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise which confirms the significant advances made in the quality of research made in UK Universities. These Universities have been focussed on clear targets and have clearly achieved a significant improvement in the quality of research. We especially welcome the use of international peers to benchmark performance at the 5*, 5 and (selectively) 4 level which gives confidence that this is a genuine improvement in quality and not a lowering of standards. We recognise however, that the significant improvement in UK University research places considerable strains upon funding and is likely to require a significant rethink of future Research Assessment Exercises.

  4.  We believe the Research Assessment Exercise conducted every five years continues to offer good value for money. The peer review process is generally acknowledged as fair and effective. It is important to ensure that peer review on the five yearly basis is retained for all units of assessment irrespective of past performance.

  5.  We note that a significant number of groups have advanced over either this exercise or recent exercises from ratings 2 or 3 until they are now rated 5 or 5*. This suggests the importance of maintaining funding for those Units that are presently more lowly ranked but showing promise of improvement.

  6.  In our own University we are delighted to have 3 Units rated at 5 and 7 Units rated at 4. Given that we did not receive research monies until 1992, this shows excellent returns on this investment and we would argue that this shows some of the best value for money performance in the sector. We would strongly hope that this will be significantly rewarded when the Higher Education Funding Council for England comes to allocate funding for the Academic Year 2002-03.

  7.  Perhaps the greatest challenge is to the Research Assessment Exercise comes because it merely assesses historical quality. It may therefore, be inherently conservative and work against innovative developments which are interdisciplinary or not recognised within current units of assessment. Important areas of research which are new or poorly developed may lack investment and this growth may be stunted as until they develop 5 and 5* Units there is little funding for them. The HEFCE report (01/63) on "Research in Nursing and Allied Health Professions" identified just such a problem for nursing.

  8.  We have welcomed the way in which successive UK Governments in recent years have focused UK research by means of the Foresight exercise. There must be some concern as to whether the Research Assessment Exercise supports or conflicts with the priorities set in the UK Foresight exercises.

  9.  We believe the five yearly time scale is the most appropriate frequency. One particular anomaly arises, however, when a University makes a major strategic development to satisfy national needs and establishes a new area of work. For example the new Medical Schools recently established through competitive bidding. While teaching funds are allocated as a result of this competition and careful evaluation, no research money can be earnt for five years, ie until after the next assessment exercise. There must be provision for an interim exercise in such strictly defined circumstances or the new Medical Schools will be seriously, and unintentionally, disadvantaged.

  10.  One particular problem is a direct outcome of the funding methodology. As long as the Unit of Resource in a 5* Unit is greater than the cost of a member of staff, then there is a strong incentive for groups rated 5* to acquire additional 5* researchers. This can be illustrated in the Physics Unit of Assessment where both the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford have 5* Units containing 138.9 and 155.6 FTE Category A researchers respectively. While in the 1960s Physics probably was a priority area of research for the UK, is this still the case? Is this an intended or unintended outcome of the Research Assessment Exercise.

  11.  The organisation of the Units of Assessment into families by HEFCE means that if a Unit increases in both rating and volume, whereas other Units in the same family do not, this will draw money into that Subject Area. Thus an area such as Law, which seems to have done exceptionally well, will draw money into the Unit possibly at the expense of other Units. Again, is this an intended or unintended outcome?

  12.  There is some at least anecdotal evidence that research is enhanced most in those areas where it is particularly difficult to recruit students. The suggestion is that staff with lower teaching loads have been able to devote more time to research. This would seem to conflict with the intended outcome that research should underpin teaching.

  13.  We particularly welcome the use of international peer review for 5 and 5* Units and some 4 rated Units. We would like to see this extended to all assessments. Research has been a global activity for some years and international benchmarking should be encouraged for all Units of Assessment.

9 January 2002

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