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


Memorandum submitted by the Coalition Of Modern Universities


  1.01  The Coalition of Modern Universities consists of 35 university institutions that are members of UniversitiesUK and which were, prior to 1992, polytechnics and colleges funded through the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council. The history and development of these institutions, many of which were established originally in the nineteenth century, had been one of teaching and a lesser engagement with research which was often closely related to their local communities and industries. Prior to 1992 these institutions had no comprehensive access to research funding through their funding bodies. They competed in the RAE in 1992 for the first time and have done so with increasing success in 1996 and 2001.

  1.02  The history is important in this context as, although there was research activity in many of these institutions, the lack of access to the dual support funding system meant that a sustainable research infrastructure could not be developed. Despite this, there were areas of excellence prior to the creation of the unified sector in 1992. These could only be sustained on the basis of short term funding. Much of this research was of an applied nature and frequently closely related to local needs.

  1.03  Since the abolition of the "binary line" and creation of the Higher Education Funding Councils in 1992, there has been a remarkable growth of research activity and capability in the post-92 universities. This is clearly evident from a comparative review of results in 1992, 1996 and 2001 RAE scores for the post-92 universities. This has demonstrated that international excellence in research is found in all parts of the higher education sector. It is, in many ways, a remarkable achievement by the post 92 sector that so many units of assessment were rated at 4, 5, and 5* in 2001 with 30 per cent of their research active staff being rated as being assessed in these categories.

  1.04  The RAE has proved to be a useful exercise to establish peer reviewed assessment of the quality of research in higher education. There is no doubt that it has sharpened accountability across the sector and formed the basis for strategic planning for research. It provides incentives for development of research and the results of RAE 2001 demonstrate the success of the RAE in stimulating research of national and international quality.

  1.05  The CMU is in broad agreement with the submission to the Select Committee by UniversitiesUK and we wish to develop here some of the reservations identified in the UniversitiesUK response from the perspective of universities that have developing research activity from the low funding base described above. Particular issues are the appropriateness of the definition of excellence for research which is particularly related to local issues, the distribution of funding, the opportunity for innovation and development, the handling of interdisciplinary activities and the bureaucracy and cost of the exercise.


  2.01  The range of activity that can legitimately be described as research is wide. The 2001 exercise attempted to respond to criticisms of earlier exercises that insufficient emphasis had been given to work of a more applied nature. Although steps have been taken to embrace research more widely, there remains a concern that departments with predominantly applied research are disadvantaged by the strong emphasis given to international excellence as being that work which is published in journals of presumed international quality, with no reference being made to the potential social, cultural or economic benefits which might flow from the research. These international journals may be inappropriate for areas of applied science and technology research that are in a phase that comprises incremental additions to knowledge that are too early for individual companies to be willing to fund, but which can be brought to the developmental stage through further research. This work is essential for successful technology transfer, yet is rarely accorded a high score in the RAE, and falls outside the technology transfer remit of HEIF/HEROBAC funding. There is also an inevitable problem for institutions that are engaged in contract research that it is often inappropriate for publication in international journals, particularly because it is subject to confidentiality restrictions. The result of this is that there is inadequate funding to support properly the basic infrastructure on which this work needs to be based. This makes it difficult for universities to support the necessary development activity to bring applied research close enough to the market place to engage the interest of commercial funders. Further, the public perception of quality is based on the RAE score, which also has been used as a proxy measure by which such initiatives as research equipment infrastructure funding are assessed. This can lead to situations where significant research of national importance, which will not meet the criteria for international excellence in the RAE definitions can be starved of funding.


  3.01  It is a basic principle of UK higher education that good teaching is underpinned by research. For universities that only had access to "dual support" funding from 1992, there has been a great need for some base-line development funding to establish and nurture developing research areas. They have not been able to call on contributions from the significant research funding available to more traditional universities and confirmed through the RAE exercises. This was recognised by the HEFCE in 1992 through the DevR funding stream, which whilst set at a low level, provided important seed-corn development funds. The improvement of research performance in 1996 showed the effectiveness of these limited funds. That fund was replaced in 1997 by the CollR stream of funds which was similarly targeted at building capacity. The remarkable improvement in RAE results in 2001 by the recipients of this funding showed again the effectiveness of relatively small amounts of money in building capacity and capability. The HEFCE review of the RAE recommended the discontinuation of this fund from 2002. This will bear heavily on those universities with emerging and developing research, particularly if the allocation of funding to units assessed at 3a, 3b is significantly less in real terms from 2002 than in previous years.

  3.02  It was the public ambition of Funding Councils, the DTI and the Research Councils, to support the principle set in the Dearing Report that research excellence should be funded no matter where it is found. Research funding should set out, not only to sustain research excellence but also to provide opportunity to stimulate new areas of excellence. Whilst the RAE is capable of providing a ranking of research quality in any one subject area it reflects a moment in time and not the trajectory of development or capability. Innovation and the ability to hold on to the competitive edge come from the development of the unexpected not just the expected. Maintaining flexibility is therefore a wise and essential precaution. Whilst the allocation of funding to new areas will always carry some risk, it can be done much more easily within institutions if they have a large research funding base. It is almost impossible to do this within institutions with small but developing research funding bases, yet innovation and excellence can flourish in these universities. The success in terms of value for money and stimulation of emergent research activity of the DevR and CollR streams of funding is clear. Removal of these funds just as new research activities are achieving their first successes will not only endanger that work but also the opportunities for future innovation in these universities.


  4.01  The all-round achievement of universities in the RAE process in 2001 is causing problems in the allocation of funding. This is well documented. The CMU recognises the dilemma faced by the Funding Councils over this. We support the plea by UniversitiesUK for an increase through new funding for the overall research budget in SR2002. The decision to protect the value of 5* funding, whilst important to sustain these areas of excellence, has potentially serious consequences for the funding of the lower scores, particularly 3a, 3b. We welcome the decision to ensure funding for 3a, 3b but the level is as yet undefined. The boundaries between 3a and higher scores are finely judged yet there is a huge differential in funding. A score of 3a identifies the research as of attainable levels of national excellence in at least two thirds of work with some evidence of international excellence (for 3a). For post-92 universities this usually represents emerging research excellence that, properly funded, will be the internationally excellent research of the future.

  4.02  In the interests of developing the research base of this country, supporting the knowledge based economy, underpinning the teaching of students and providing continued motivation to staff who have worked exceptionally hard to build their research base, it is essential that adequate funding is found to sustain this work and support its development to higher levels.


  5.01  Prior to RAE 2001, it was recognised that there were problems in assessing research that was truly interdisciplinary and did not fall readily into the subject based units of assessment. It is in the nature of research that many advances, particularly in new areas, take place at the interfaces between established disciplines, often more than two disciplines being involved. This makes it difficult to assess the real impact of such work when it does not fall easily into single discipline panels. These are most unlikely to map readily onto the individual institutional structures, thereby complicating the process by which submissions can be made into the subject based panels. We would support a further review of the basis for the assessment of interdisciplinary research to ensure that excellence can be clearly identified.


  6.01  The RAE has, over the last decade been a useful instrument in helping institutions to raise the quality of their research effort so that the vast majority of the 50,000 academics submitted to this last exercise have been judged by their peers, both nationally and internationally, to be producing research of national or international levels of attainable excellence. It has been progressively refined and has demonstrated the excellence of research across the higher education system. It has undoubtedly sharpened accountability and given a much more strategic thrust to research management. The post-92 universities have shown that they deliver excellence in research and that they have developed rapidly improving research capability. They have achieved this from a low starting point in terms of research funding and have made excellent use of the relatively small amounts of DevR and CollR initiative funding. The RAE is still founded on a strongly defined subject base approach, which while it undoubtedly has its strengths does not map readily onto the structures and activities of every university. The cost of submission to the RAE to institutions is large. This bears particularly heavily on those universities with relatively small research funded activity that cannot sustain large administrative offices to support research. We would urge the Funding Councils to review carefully the cost and burden of any future RAE in line with the principles being established by the Better Accountability initiative of HEFCE, particularly in the light of the comprehensive excellent results that are now being achieved.

Dr Geoffrey Copland

Chair, Coalition of Modern Universities and

Vice-Chancellor and Rector, University of Westminster

January 2002

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