Memorandum submitted by the University
1. The University of Plymouth is the eight
largest University in the UK with over 27,000 students. It is
a major provider of higher education in the south west peninsula
of England. It has a mission to be a world-class teaching and
research University. Approximately 10 per cent of its income is
derived from research activity. It is generally regarded as one
of the top three most successful post-1992 Universities. We are
pleased to be able to provide written evidence for the Select
Committee Enquiry on the Higher Education Funding Councils' Research
2. In previous consultations, we have always
made clear the view of the University of Plymouth that we accept,
given the lack of funds for research, funding has to be allocated
selectively on the basis of some assessment of the quality of
research. The Research Assessment Exercise as currently conducted
has up to now proved to be the best means of allocating such money,
although it is necessarily distorted by historical investment,
or rather under-investment. We have also consistently argued against
greater selectivity than has hitherto been practised since this
will stifle innovation and prevent the emergence of new Centres
of Excellence. There is a real danger that if selectivity becomes
greater than presently experienced, then the research system in
the UK will ossify.
3. We welcome the outcome of the 2001 Research
Assessment Exercise which confirms the significant advances made
in the quality of research made in UK Universities. These Universities
have been focussed on clear targets and have clearly achieved
a significant improvement in the quality of research. We especially
welcome the use of international peers to benchmark performance
at the 5*, 5 and (selectively) 4 level which gives confidence
that this is a genuine improvement in quality and not a lowering
of standards. We recognise however, that the significant improvement
in UK University research places considerable strains upon funding
and is likely to require a significant rethink of future Research
4. We believe the Research Assessment Exercise
conducted every five years continues to offer good value for money.
The peer review process is generally acknowledged as fair and
effective. It is important to ensure that peer review on the five
yearly basis is retained for all units of assessment irrespective
of past performance.
5. We note that a significant number of
groups have advanced over either this exercise or recent exercises
from ratings 2 or 3 until they are now rated 5 or 5*. This suggests
the importance of maintaining funding for those Units that are
presently more lowly ranked but showing promise of improvement.
6. In our own University we are delighted
to have 3 Units rated at 5 and 7 Units rated at 4. Given that
we did not receive research monies until 1992, this shows excellent
returns on this investment and we would argue that this shows
some of the best value for money performance in the sector. We
would strongly hope that this will be significantly rewarded when
the Higher Education Funding Council for England comes to allocate
funding for the Academic Year 2002-03.
7. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to
the Research Assessment Exercise comes because it merely assesses
historical quality. It may therefore, be inherently conservative
and work against innovative developments which are interdisciplinary
or not recognised within current units of assessment. Important
areas of research which are new or poorly developed may lack investment
and this growth may be stunted as until they develop 5 and 5*
Units there is little funding for them. The HEFCE report (01/63)
on "Research in Nursing and Allied Health Professions"
identified just such a problem for nursing.
8. We have welcomed the way in which successive
UK Governments in recent years have focused UK research by means
of the Foresight exercise. There must be some concern as to whether
the Research Assessment Exercise supports or conflicts with the
priorities set in the UK Foresight exercises.
9. We believe the five yearly time scale
is the most appropriate frequency. One particular anomaly arises,
however, when a University makes a major strategic development
to satisfy national needs and establishes a new area of work.
For example the new Medical Schools recently established through
competitive bidding. While teaching funds are allocated as a result
of this competition and careful evaluation, no research money
can be earnt for five years, ie until after the next assessment
exercise. There must be provision for an interim exercise in such
strictly defined circumstances or the new Medical Schools will
be seriously, and unintentionally, disadvantaged.
10. One particular problem is a direct outcome
of the funding methodology. As long as the Unit of Resource in
a 5* Unit is greater than the cost of a member of staff, then
there is a strong incentive for groups rated 5* to acquire additional
5* researchers. This can be illustrated in the Physics Unit of
Assessment where both the University of Cambridge and the University
of Oxford have 5* Units containing 138.9 and 155.6 FTE Category
A researchers respectively. While in the 1960s Physics probably
was a priority area of research for the UK, is this still the
case? Is this an intended or unintended outcome of the Research
11. The organisation of the Units of Assessment
into families by HEFCE means that if a Unit increases in both
rating and volume, whereas other Units in the same family do not,
this will draw money into that Subject Area. Thus an area such
as Law, which seems to have done exceptionally well, will draw
money into the Unit possibly at the expense of other Units. Again,
is this an intended or unintended outcome?
12. There is some at least anecdotal evidence
that research is enhanced most in those areas where it is particularly
difficult to recruit students. The suggestion is that staff with
lower teaching loads have been able to devote more time to research.
This would seem to conflict with the intended outcome that research
should underpin teaching.
13. We particularly welcome the use of international
peer review for 5 and 5* Units and some 4 rated Units. We would
like to see this extended to all assessments. Research has been
a global activity for some years and international benchmarking
should be encouraged for all Units of Assessment.
9 January 2002