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


Memorandum submitted by the University of the West of England, Bristol


  This submission provides evidence of a real increase in research quality and new data on return on investment made by the Government as a result of previous exercises. In determining how scarce resources should be allocated we argue for a new approach in the long term that is informed by gains made against Government funds invested.

  In the short term, while recognising the importance of rewarding the higher grades, we believe that all units rated 3b and above should ideally be funded. Given limited resources to fund the 3b to 4 ratings however, we argue that the Higher Education Funding Council for England should take account of return on investment as measured between the 1996 and 2001 exercises. Units in this range should be differentially rewarded depending on whether they have improved or not as indicated by the outcome of the 2001 exercise.


  While various factors have contributed to the overall increase in ratings following the 2001 RAE, we believe the chief driver has been a genuine improvement in the research performance of institutions. While some institutions appear to have submitted fewer staff in order to enhance ratings, there has been a marked increase overall in the number of staff in units achieving the higher grades—the number of staff in units rated 5/5* rose from 14,786 to 26,235, an increase of over 77 per cent. This dramatic increase demonstrates that overall quality has improved.

  The current funding mechanism rewards research excellence through the differential funding of higher graded units of assessment on a scale of 1, 1.5, 2.25, 3.375, 4.05 (for grades 3b to 5*). This is done on the basis of an assessment of quantitative and qualitative research outputs over the assessment period. No account is taken of input, and in particular of Funding Council investment over that period, so no 'value for money' assessment is made of the improvement and expansion in research. We feel it is vital to reward both research excellence and value for money from public investment.

  One way of measuring the impact of public investment is to consider the improvement in ratings, and increases in volume, in proportion to HEFCE funding over the assessment period. By measuring performance in terms of research "power" (a simple measure which multiplies the number of staff by the quality rating in each unit of assessment), it can be shown that the sector as a whole has shown an improvement in performance of some 18 per cent since 1996. Dividing this measure by the amount of QR (or in the case of the ex-polytechnics, by the sum of QR and CollR) gives some idea of the relative return on investment. The overall return on investment for all institutions is 12.42 research power "units" per £ million QR/CollR. Interestingly however, on this measure there is a marked discrepancy between return on investment from 'old' universities (10.7) and the ex-polytechnics[2] (25.5).

  Per unit funding therefore, the ex-polytechnics show two and half times greater improvement in performance than the 'old' universities[3] (see tables attached—further information on these calculations is available on request).

  The RAE rating of 3a is awarded to units where between two thirds and all of the research is considered to be at attainable levels of national excellence. The rating of 3b relates to units where between half and two thirds is considered to be at attainable levels of national excellence. While we would support the continued principle of rewarding excellence through differential funding of the higher grades, we believe it also important to fund grades 3b to 4 in order to encourage further improvement in standards. If there is insufficient resource to fund all units rated 3b, 3a and 4, we suggest using the return on investment principle to choose which units in the range 3b to 4 should receive most funding.

  For example, given limited resources, differential funding could be allocated to areas of identifiable improvement in units rated grade 3b and above in preference to areas where public investment has been made but where no such improvement has been achieved. Universities that have used QR effectively to improve their research performance in a unit would thus be rewarded.

  On this basis, recognising the inability of the HEFCE to fund the improvement evident from the 2001 RAE through the current formula (and in order not to over-complicate the formula), we would urge that priority be given to the funding of units rated in the range 3b to 4 that have shown improvement in grade since the last RAE.

  In the longer term we believe that further work should be carried out on return on investment before any decision is taken about changing the nature of the Research Assessment Exercise and the ways in which the Government can influence further growth in research quality.

Linda Skinner, Richard Bond and Ian Warren

Centre for Research, Innovation and Industry, University of the West of England, Bristol

15 January 2002

2   These two groups of institutions have been separated because the numbers of institutions participating has been relatively stable over the two assessments. In others categories eg Colleges of Higher Education and specialist institutions it is more difficult to measure differences because of the changing pattern of entries. Data relates only to institutions funded by HEFCE. Back

3   In part this may be due to the inability to increase grades for those rated 5* at 1996 but this does not fully explain the differential return on investment. Back

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