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The results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (Ref), published on Friday, will be pored over by the 52,000 academics at 154 institutions who took part in the huge public assessment of their research output, which determines the division of £2bn of public money in research funding annually.
Oxford is set to take the largest share of the block funding, after almost half of the research produced by its 2,400 academic staff was given the top four-star rating by panels of judges and experts in each subject, while the output of University College London’s 2,600 staff placed it above Cambridge’s 2,100, according to analysis of the results by Research Fortnight.
The results mean that an increasing proportion of research funding is likely to be sucked up by the so-called “Golden Triangle” of Oxford, Cambridge and London universities, according to William Cullerne Bown of Research Fortnight, which analyses higher education funding.
“London looks unstoppable. It has over 100,000 square metres of new research facilities coming online shortly – and that’s just the start. It could now eclipse Oxbridge,” Brown said.
Among the major institutions, Imperial College in London continued its recent run of plaudits with the finding that 90% of its research activities were world-leading or internationally excellent, placing it above both Oxford and Cambridge under that measure, with the London School of Economics and Cardiff University also in the top five for the proportion of research they produce which is rated four- and three-star.
The Institute of Cancer Research, a specialist unit within the University of London, came top overall by that measure, with nearly 92% of its research in the four- and three-star categories that are likely to attract research funding. Just over 87% of the research produced by Oxford was given the top two ratings, but the volume of research means it will still attract the largest funding of any institution.
Prof Andrew Hamilton, Oxford University’s vice-chancellor, said he was delighted by the results.
“Research is an intensely competitive activity and we are looking at and responding to worldwide competition in the world of research, the recruitment of leading academics and outstanding students, so there will be no resting on laurels,” Hamilton said.
Noting the substantial improvement in UK research output overall, Hamilton said that success should be reinforced with more generous funding of university research.
“I very much hope that this will influence those making decisions on research funding, that this excellent performance for the sector will be recognised and that the response will be an increase in public investment for the UK’s outstanding research infrastructure,” he said.
The Ref is the first of its kind since the last research assessment exercise in 2008, and revealed a substantial rise in quality since then. Some 22% of the 191,000 pieces of research were judged to be world-leading, compared with 14% in 2008, while 50% were found to be internationally excellent, compared with 37% previously.
Prof Madeleine Atkins, the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said the results were “the culmination of the world’s largest exercise to assess the quality of research” and helped make Britain’s universities world leaders. “Our funding has virtually no strings attached and the Ref provides accountability for that funding,” she said.
This time 20% of the ratings awarded in each subject were based on the impact of individual pieces of research – in an attempt to measure reach and effectiveness – and it was in this category that institutions such as Cardiff thrived.
Malcolm Skingle of the pharmaceutical company GSK, a member of one of the four main panels that assessed the 36 subject areas, said the impact case studies showed that university research had real-world applications.
“I think early on the impact agenda frightened the academics because they are frightened by anything that’s new,” Skingle said, but eventually they embraced it by “getting out of their ivory towers”.
The Russell Group of research universities pointed out that 68% of its 24 members’ output was world-class.
“The continued strength of the UK’s research base and ability to innovate requires increased investment and a concentration of limited funds on major centres of excellence. Our key international competitors have wisely adopted this policy, pumping billions into their best universities,” said Wendy Piatt, the Russell Group’s director general.
But Prof Michael Gunn, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University and chair of the Million+ thinktank, said: “In the last five years, government priorities and policies have resulted in the funding councils redefining excellence which has led to the hyper-concentration of taxpayer-funded investment in fewer universities.
“Ministers and the funding councils need to deliver a more balanced research funding formula that invests in all universities and provides the foundations for a broader research base that will benefit all parts of the country.”