86. In 2002 HEFCE recognised that "Any assessment
process, particularly one as important to its subjects as the
RAE, will distort the very thing it intends to measure".
We considered in our earlier Report whether the RAE distorts the
nature of research being undertaken; that it discourages longer
term "blue skies" research and forces researchers to
look for short-term goals; that publication practice is being
affected; and that research careers are being undermined, in particular
87. The UK Computing Research Committee draws attention
to the "increasing focus on safe, incremental research and
an unwillingness to cross discipline boundaries or to explore
adventurous ideas that may not lead to publishable results. The
original RAE contributed to this change, by focusing on recently
published research and thereby compelling researchers to maintain
a stream of publishable work. The Funding Councils' proposals
will not relieve this pressure".
They say that "The RAE is often presumed to inhibit interdisciplinary
research. A 1999 Report found no evidence that panels treat interdisciplinary
research differently but reported a widespread perception that
they did so. It noted that this perception could itself influence
the willingness of institutions to support interdisciplinary research".
Nevertheless, the Funding Bodies report that they "are giving
active consideration to Sir Gareth Roberts' suggestion that virtual
'colleges of assessors' be recruited in established interdisciplinary
areas which do not fit neatly into the RAE panel structure".
Universities UK is "encouraged by the intention that the
2008 RAE will, in principle, take better account of vital applied,
inter- and multi-disciplinary research".
In their proposals published in July 2004, the Funding Bodies
give more information about how the RAE will handle interdisciplinary
researchmainly by "improved arrangements for the sub-panels
to take additional specialist advice". This they believe
"will ensure, wherever a sub-panel has to consider significant
bodies of interdisciplinary research, that such research is assessed
taking account of advice from people who fully understand it".
Also "the two-tier panel structure will be helpful where
research is submitted that draws on the approaches and methods
of related disciplines within the same main panel field".
Concentration of research and departmental closures
88. We described above HEFCE's increasingly selective
funding policies which have been pursued without any clear rationale.
It has been a concern of many within the research community that
research funding has become increasingly concentrated in a handful
of universities. The Geographical Society with The Institute of
British Geographers has "serious concerns about the potential
for further concentrations of research funding" since "The
many 4-rated geography departments in UK (35% are rated 4 in the
2001 RAE) are an important bedrock and, along with 3a and 3b departments,
a significant training ground for UK geographical research".
The Biosciences Federation also "opposes any further narrowing
of the research base".
Universities UK shares this concern and "has been deeply
concerned by the cuts in funding to departments rated 4 and below,
and the Government's policy of further concentration of research
Concern is not limited to academia. The White Paper The Future
of Higher Education, published in January 2003, assumed that
the concentration of research would enhance national research
performance. This assumption is based on virtually no supporting
evidence. By contrast, a study commissioned by Universities UK
from Evidence Ltd, Funding Research Diversity: The impact of
further concentration on university research performance and regional
research capacity demonstrated that investment in departments
scoring a 4 or 3 in RAE 2001 was important for developing the
performance of the research base at regional, national and international
The Office of Science and Technology commissioned its own study
from the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex,
which concluded that "there seems to be little if any convincing
evidence to justify a government policy explicitly aimed at further
concentration of research resources on large departments or large
universities in the UK on the grounds of superior economic efficiency".
89. The Wellcome Trust has "serious concerns
over how the results of RAE 2008 will be utilised in the allocation
of research funds. It is our belief that the level of research
funding is already highly selective and should not become even
more so". The Trust says that it is "vital that the
funding method provides support for teams and infrastructure and
ultimately provides funds to departments that are fit for purpose".
90. That research has become increasingly selective
is not open to doubt. Less easy to establish is the link between
this trend and the closure of physical science departments. In
our earlier Report we concluded that "The RAE may not be
the primary cause of departmental closures but we suspect that
it is a contributory factor".
HEFCE's withering response was, "We do not understand what
point is being made here. The RAE provides a mechanism for allowing
continued funding for excellent research, even if student numbers
Sir Howard had been in post for little over six months at HEFCE
when we received its reply and in the two years since he has clearly
mellowed: "The vast bulk of those [departmental] closures
] have been in Grade 1 and 2 RAE categorised departments,
and they have also been in very small departments, so this is
where vice chancellors have been [
] taking their investment
decisions to invest in areas of growth, and disinvest from areas
Professor Richard Joyner had little doubt that the RAE had played
a part and was concerned that the worst was to come, "because
what has happened as a result of the 2001 financial settlement
is that you now have an insurmountable entry barrier to anybody
who wants to get into research in science and technology, and
you have a big exit penalty".
We are pleased that Sir Howard Newby now recognises that a
policy of highly selective research funding, based on the RAE,
has had an effect on the viability of university departments in
core subjects. The RAE does not take place in a vacuum and further
changes are also now taking place in higher education following
the 2003 White Paper and the introduction of variable tuition
fees. It is too early to say what the precise impact of those
changes will be. Concerns expressed so far, however, suggest that
variable fees may also lead to closures of further university
departments, quite possibly in the physical sciences. The operation
of the RAE and variable fees may, therefore be mutually self re-inforcing
and HEFCE should remain vigilant in these respects.
91. It could be argued that departmental closures
are not a problem in themselves if research capacity in those
subjects is not impaired. The geographical pattern of these closures
could be significant, however. If it left regions of the UK without
adequate provision then this could impact on the access to academic
research for local businesses and public services. It would also
provide a more limited choice of subjects for potential undergraduates
who wish to study locally. Rising debt among undergraduates may
increase the number of students wishing to study at their nearest
HEI. It was reassuring that Sir Howard recognised this as a problem:
"because these closures have been uncoordinated, unplanned
and somewhat random, there are some difficulties".
We therefore welcome the thoughtful suggestions made by HEFCE
in supplementary evidence and the measures outlined in the Investment
Framework, which provide the option for HEFCE to intervene when
a department is threatened by closure by demanding 12 months'
notice for closure and by offering extra funds in some cases.
The provisions for HEFCE to delay closure or offer funding
to struggling departments have been criticised for threatening
the autonomy of universities but this encroachment on their independence
is a price worth paying for the preservation of core disciplines
on a national basis. We accept that these powers should be used
with restraint but this is an important shift in policy we welcome.
Given the additional concerns over the possible effects of variable
fees, these new powers for HEFCE are also extremely timely.
The teaching-research link
92. The link between teaching and research is hotly
contested. In our earlier Report on the RAE we expressed support
for "high-quality teaching in a high-quality research environment"
and concern that teaching-only departments would not provide the
environment to inspire science students to embark on a research
career. "The Institute [of Physics] welcomed the explicit
recognition of the importance of the link between teaching and
research in the Funding Bodies' consultation document" but
it was disappointed that the Funding Bodies' proposals made no
mention of teaching.
The Biosciences Federation believes that the "RAE will continue
to serve poorly less research-active staff who may make a major
contribution to teaching and administration" and that there
is "a problem with young staff of great promise who may,
as yet, have only one or two papers". The Federation remarked
that the provision for such staff was considered quite extensively
by the Roberts group, but is not mentioned in the Funding Bodies
Initial Statement other than in a vague reference to panel and
sub-panel consideration of departmental strategies and staff development.
The research-teaching link has been considered by the new Higher
Education Research Forum under the chairmanship of Sir Graeme
Davies and we await its findings with interest.
123 Ev 52 Back
Ev 26 Back
Ev 33 Back
Ev 40 Back
Ev 49 Back
Q 13 Back
Ev 57 Back
HEFCE, Funding higher education in England: How HEFCE allocates
its funds, May 2004/23 Back
Q 79 Back
HC (2001-02) 507, para 86 Back
HEFCE, Review of CollR, September 2001, p 2 Back
HEFCE, Funding higher education in England: How HEFCE allocates
its funds, May 2004/23, paras 87-89 Back
Ev 38 Back
HC (2001-02) 507, Ev 7, para 60 Back
Ev 38 Back
Ev 46 Back
Ev 51 Back
The Funding Bodies, Units of assessment and recruitment of
panel members, 03/2004, July 2004 Back
Ev 30 Back
Ev 33 Back
Ev 51 Back
Ev 51 Back
von Tunzelmann N, Ranga, M, Martin B and Geuna A, The Effects
of Size on Research Performance: A SPRU Review, June 2003 Back
Ev 37 Back
Para 44 Back
HC (200102) 995 Back
Q 69 Back
Q 83 Back
Q 71 Back
Ev 57; HM Treasury, Science & Innovation Investment Framework
2004 - 2014, July 2004, para 6.49-6.50 Back
Ev 29 Back
Ev 34 Back