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


APPENDIX 11

Memorandum submitted by the University of Hertfordshire

THE UNIVERSITY OF HERTFORDSHIRE

  1.  This institution is one that has clearly and demonstrably benefited from participation in the RAE and from the associated separate streams of research funding. In a consultation exercise conducted in 1998, and in the 1999 Fundamental review of Research Policy and Funding (both conducted by HEFCE) we broadly affirmed our confidence in the RAE, and in the current mechanisms for allocating research funds. Here we repeat that affirmation:

    "The University of Hertfordshire believes that the funding bodies should continue to use a form of research assessment exercise for allocating research funding . . . since we consider the present RAE system a fair method for evaluating research quality".

  In both those exercises, according to HEFCE "Consultation with the sector produced overwhelming support for the RAE as the best way to assess research quality".

CONTEXT

  2.  Unlike pre-1992 universities, post-1992 universities had no core funding for research prior to 1993, though opportunities were available to bid for PCFC research funding. Hence prior to 1993, Hatfield Polytechnic, like other new universities, supported research selectively, mainly in science and technology (particularly Engineering, Physics, Biosciences and Computer Science), and in Nursing and other health-related disciplines. Institutional research strategy was thematic, focused on "Interdisciplinary research in science and engineering with particular application to healthcare". Our research emphasis therefore conformed exactly to national priorities, as defined in the Roith report, and as subsequently identified in Technology Foresight.

RAE 1992

  3.  However as a New University with a selective and prioritised emphasis on research in science and technology, entering the RAE for the first time in 1992, we found ourselves disadvantaged: firstly by inexperience of the RAE process, and secondly by virtue precisely of our traditional concentration on strategic and applied research, and on collaboration with industry, neither of which activities received due credit in RAE evaluations. Those research areas in which we had invested most heavily, and which were our most successful in terms of external grants and contracts, fared relatively badly in RAE 1992. On the other hand research spanning the curriculum, in Psychology, Business and Management, Humanities and Education were recognised by RAE ratings, together with Computer Science (rated 4 in RAE 1992). The map of Hertfordshire research drawn by the 1992 RAE failed to conform either to the University's own sense of its traditional research strengths, or to the priorities of institutional research strategy: but on the other hand assisted us in determining areas of research achievement and potentiality, and in identifying sites of developmental research which included existing areas of established research strength and clear research promise, and new areas of research where these showed the potential for rapid development and compatibility with the overall strategy.

RESEARCH STRATEGY 1993-96

  4.  From 1993-96 we responded by developing a new "Research Quality" strategy, based on the selective use of QR funding to support the units in receipt of RAE ratings, with the highest-rated units receiving proportionately higher funding; coupled with a "Research Development" strategy focusing the application of DevR funding on continuing support for science, engineering and healthcare research, and on "pump-priming" support for other research areas requiring enhancement (some 35 per cent of the funding was allocated to QR-rated UOAs, and the other 65 per cent to science and technology and to new research areas). These strategies were framed by the exigencies of the RAE, and enabled by the influx of a substantial and discrete stream of research funding, all of which was deployed strategically in support of particular research objectives.

RAE 1996

  5.  These strategies were proven successful in the 1996 RAE, where science and technology, with the best of our interdisciplinary engineering research submitted under both Computing and Physics (both rated four in 1996 RAE), together with excellent applied work in Psychology (3a), re-emerged as the University's principal research strengths. New research areas receiving recognition included healthcare disciplines such as Nursing, Arts Therapies, Radiography and Physiotherapy. Meanwhile the span of viable research across the curriculum was increased to include Art and Design, Art History, Music, as well as the Business, Education and Humanities areas that fared well in 1992. The 1996 RAE submission increased the numbers of research-active staff from 93.8 FTE in 1992, to 201.1 FTE (28 per cent of total academic staff). The highest-rated areas generally increased staff volume substantially between 1992 and 1996:

    —  Physics (4) 75 per cent

    —  Computing (4) 43 per cent

    —  Psychology (3a) 12.5 per cent.

RESEARCH ACHIEVEMENT 1993-96

  6.  Hence through exploitation of the RAE exercise, and by the strategic application of research funding to very closely-defined objectives, this university succeeded over a period of three years (1993-96) in reconfirming its traditional mission as a specialist institution focused on science and engineering research, by

    —  Producing research of international excellence in Physics and Computing.

    —  Producing research of national excellence in specific areas of science and engineering (Environmental Sciences, Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering).

  At the same time we succeeded, through targeted investment, in developing the healthcare research identified in the late 1980s as an institutional priority, by

    —  Producing research of national/international excellence in health-related areas such as Psychology.

    —  Developing research of national excellence in health-related disciplines such as Nursing, Pharmacology, Arts Therapies, Radiography and Physiotherapy.

  In addition we continued to maintain and develop, still selectively and strategically, the broad range of research appropriate to a university, by

    —  Maintaining research of national excellence widely across the curriculum in Business and Management, Education, Humanities.

    —  Developing research of national excellence in new areas such as Art and Design, and Music.

RAE 2001

  9.  It was recognised from the experience of the 1992 RAE that the applied and commercial research activities that had been the specialism of Hatfield Polytechnic could not automatically be presented as academic research of international and national excellence; and that the development of health-related research would require a longer period of development. Our submission strategy for RAE 2001 was focused on the same broad objectives as those pursued since 1992, with the general aim of improving ratings where possible, consolidating research in areas of national excellence, and bringing further new areas of research into the RAE environment.

  10.  The results obtained from RAE 2001 fully endorse the correctness of these strategies. Grades of 4 for Nursing and Psychology, together with evidence of some national excellence in Physiology and Pharmacology, demonstrate the growth of our health-related research. Our Nursing now ranks first by grade and volume, and our Psychology second, among new universities. Nursing has the same grade as King's and Leeds. Our Psychology is larger than 4-rated departments at City, Keele, Kent, Loughborough. We have held our 4 grades in Physics and Computer Science with increased staff volume (in Physics from 12.25 to 22 FTE, in Computer Science from 19.7 to 34.2FTE). Our Physics is the highest-ranking new university by grade and volume; among all universities graded 4, stands equal third with the University of York; and is larger than 4-rated departments at King's, Loughborough, Newcastle and Reading. Our Computer Science ranks second by grade and volume among new universities, and is larger than 4-rated departments at Bath, City, Kent, King's, UMIST, QMW, and Reading.

  11.  Notable successes have also been achieved by new universities in Humanities research, where funding inequities between pre- and post-1992 universities have less significance than in Science and Technology. UH now shares for History an RAE grade of 5 with Oxford. At 4 our Philosophy ranks second among new universities, and shares a grade with Birmingham, Hull, Kent, Liverpool, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow.

  11.  The Select Committee will of course wish to consider whether the RAE 2001 results represent a real improvement. By the criterion of publication in international journals, there is no evidence that performance for any grade in 2001 is lower than for the same grade in 1996. If anything the standards are higher in 2001. All 5 and 5* submissions, and some 4s, were validated by international experts. Although many departments improved, many also stayed at the high ratings of 4 or 5, and some 5* departments declined. These departments provide a benchmark for the Departments that did improve.

  11.  The success is real, and the UK should invest in its successes. New universities are acknowledged as pioneers in widening access, yet have also delivered selectively on research quality. Government initiatives to improve participation in HE are strengthened, not hampered, by the presence within such institutions of excellent research, which can thus be cascaded to students from less advantaged backgrounds.

RAE AND INSTITUTIONAL MISSION

  12.  The combined benefits of RAE evaluation, and related HEFCE research funding, have assisted this institution in

    —  pursuing research work in conformity with national priorities;

    —  developing new areas of research;

    —  and disseminating a cross-institutional research culture appropriate to a university.

  Although we were certainly able to take advantage of national priority funding under PCFC, the enhanced standing of our best research as attested through RAE ratings has provided competitive advantage both in terms of attracting research grants from research councils and charities, and in terms of successful commercial exploitation. HEFCE research funding has further enabled the university to develop a research infrastructure better capable of supporting such externally funded research.

  13.  It is apparent from the above that we have consistently pursued research of national priority both by exploiting the RAE system and by securing "partnership" funding from research councils, charities and from commercial sponsors. Further development of the levels of exploitable research depend on access to capital and infrastructure funding such as JIF (which has been notoriously concentrated in a few institutions), or the more recent (very welcome) availability of HEFCE Research Capital Project Funding and SRIF; and of course the levels of HEFCE QR funding.

NEW UNIVERSITIES AND RAE

  14.  New Universities performed relatively well, even in the 1992 RAE, and strikingly well in RAE 2001, despite having historically received much less financial support for research than the traditional universities; despite the fact that units of assessment were based on the classical subject-based departmental structures rather than the interdisciplinarity characteristic of new universities; and despite the low priority given to strategic and applied research. Results improved again between 1992 and 1996, although the effective period of usable research funding was no more than two years (1993-95). RAE 2001 confirmed this trend with many new universities achieving 5 grades in a wide range of discipline areas. Further increases in selectivity of assessment and funding would hamper the capability of new universities to identify areas of potential research excellence and develop them to standards of national and international excellence.

ASSESSMENT METHODOLOGY

  15.  The existing funding council policy of discriminating research quality at the level of the unit of assessment should continue. Research performance is, as the RAE results show, very unevenly distributed across many institutions. Good research should be funded wherever it is found. There is no case for distinguishing research quality purely at the institutional level, either to allow or deny funding. Even small pockets of research excellence in an otherwise largely teaching institution should receive public funding, as a feature of institutional diversity.

RESEARCH AND TEACHING

  16.  Hitherto new universities have submitted a minority of academic staff (no more than 50 per cent) to the RAE. Most decreased their staff volume in order to aim at higher ratings (UH increased staff volume from 1996). We believe that research and teaching are of mutual benefit, and that teaching would suffer from any move to withdraw research funding from large areas of the sector. The new universities have, with relatively small investment, produced significant returns on research. New universities have legitimate research aspirations, yet they also fully subscribe to the principle that research and teaching are the primary functions of any university. They are strong in the belief that the deliverers of new knowledge and understanding should have a stake in their production. Ministers must not be persuaded by the current polemic asserting that the only objective of the RAE should be to support "world class research". World class research has many more opportunities available to it to secure funding. If this view is used as an argument for maintaining the present regime in which the bulk of research funding goes to a small group of elite universities (for new universities 3-6 per cent research funding in the block grant, for old universities 30-60 per cent), the effect is to uncouple teaching from research in most universities and to stifle the aspirations of new universities, with a view to consigning them to a subordinate teaching-only function. This view of the world needs to be vigorously contested if all genuine research excellence is to be rewarded, and the links between teaching and research appropriately supported.

CONCLUSION

  17.  In summary then, this institution, which has attempted to retain the best aspects of Polytechnic culture, while developing a research profile appropriate to a university, has clearly derived advantage from RAE and from HEFCE research funding. RAE ratings have helped the institution to define its internal priorities for investment and development, and brought appropriate external acknowledgement of research excellence from which additional funding can be seen to flow. Research has increased in greater proportion than in many universities, partly as a consequence of our committing QR and DevR/NFF funding wholly to the purposes of research. Excellent research has been produced in areas of national priority, while the research base has spread by selective investment across the whole curriculum, and new areas of research have been identified and developed.

  18.  We have concentrated in this paper on providing specific evidence from our own experience. However we believe this performance to be exemplary of general truths about research policy and funding. In particular we believe that this history of productive development gives the lie to the arguments that RAE and HEFCE research funding fail to deliver on government priorities for science and technology. New universities are in a strong position to deliver the government's policies for research. Previous policies have tended to prioritise basic research, and marginalise strategic and applied research. New universities are well placed to assist the government in the objectives of initiatives like Technology Foresight, since this is part of their natural mission.

  19.  It is simply not the case, as the RAE has proved, that all research of national and international excellence is undertaken in a few institutions with very large research groups requiring extremely high levels of funding. Transferring the relatively marginal funding currently allocated to new universities to larger departments in traditional universities would be unlikely to improve their research, and would virtually kill the excellent research being produced in the former new university sector.

  20.  At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the RAE is about all university research, not just science and technology. While funding excellent research in selected areas that are capable of delivering on national priorities, HEFCE research funding in new universities simultaneously develops in qualitative terms the academic base that underpins the national and international value and competitiveness of UK research, teaching and learning.

INDICATIVE STATISTICS

  21.  The following figures show the scale of Hertfordshire's growth as a research university under the impact of RAE 1992, 1996 and 2001, and with the assistance of RAE-related HEFCE research funding:

  
1993
1996
2000
Research Grants and Contracts
£1,292k
£2,885k
£3,373k
Research Students
75
229
421
Research Active Staff (RAE)
93.8 FTE
201.1 FTE
252FTE
Readers
6
-
22
Professors
20
-
59
Professor Graham Holderness
Director of Research
January 2002






 
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