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


Memorandum submitted by the University of Sunderland

  In particular, this memorandum will address the request for comment on "the current situation and what changes are necessary to the DfES funding stream for research".

  1.  The University of Sunderland is a "new University"—having achieved University status (along with all other Polytechnics) in 1992—and has a high commitment to research. The University achieved the best performance of any "new University" in RAE2001 overall (ie taken across all academic staff in the institution). Alongside this, the University of Sunderland has the best record of any University in England for widening participation. We would wish to stress that we see these achievements in research and widening participation as interdependent, not independent

  2.  The first point we would wish to make is that research in Universities has three roles as follows (though regrettably there is very much an overemphasis on the first in the allocation of research funding through the Research Assessment Exercise):

    (a)  to create new knowledge, new understanding and new interpretation of existing data ie to push back the "frontiers of knowledge".

    (b)  to provide an environment of academic challenge in which the teaching of undergraduate & postgraduate students and staff development can occur. It is widely accepted that good teaching occurs where there is a strong research culture, through interaction of students and other staff with academic staff that are active in research in their discipline.

    (c)  to contribute through application of the research base to national, regional and local economic and community development.

  In the current funding methodology, research is viewed in an isolated manner and the need for integration with university-level teaching and with development of a knowledge-based economy is ignored. However, research output occurs through the activities of people: the generation of graduates and future researchers and application of research to the benefit of society (roles b and c above) are essential functions of higher education and ones which are underpinned by research.

  3.  The second point we would wish to make extends this analysis to the issue of social inclusion and widening participation. The need to increase the participation of individuals from lower socio-economic groups in higher education is essential for the national economic well-being—and is why a 50 per cent participation target has been set. As indicated above, there are few that would argue against the premise that good teaching is informed by good research ie good teaching occurs in an environment of academic challenge. The current funding paradigm for research instead of investing in the research activity in universities that are succeeding in addressing the widening participation agenda, does exactly the opposite. Research funding is increasingly directed away from such institutions, so perpetuating disadvantage. This is a manifestation of the lack of consideration, in the funding distribution, of the importance of research to good teaching.

  4.  The third point we would wish to make relates to the contribution that higher education needs to make to development of the economy. The future of the UK depends on knowledge-based activity. University research is one major source of knowledge and its exploitation, it is also an environment for development of high level and research skills. The acceleration in the need for creation, protection and exploitation of new knowledge, for skilled people and the need for connection between universities and their locality mean that the nation needs all universities to be contributing as fully as possible to development of the knowledge economy. This demands that there is a significant research base in all universities. The current situation however is leading in the opposite direction, through concentration of research funding to a restricted range of universities: the reason again being that research is considered in isolation of its importance to the other two legs of university activity—namely teaching and "reach-out".

  5.  The final point we would wish to make is in relation to current lack of parity of treatment of individuals. To explain the point, consider first a University rated as 3b in a particular subject with say 12 staff submitted then, by the RAE definition of a 3b rating, four to six of those staff are working at "attainable levels of national excellence". Nevertheless the institution secures little research funding in relation to those staff as they are funded at a 3b funding level. By comparison, consider a 5-rated department in the same subject in a different university with say 10 staff then, by the RAE definition of a 5 rating, between one and five of those staff will be at "attainable levels of international excellence" and four or eight at "attainable levels of national excellence", all being funded at a 5-rating level. Hence those four to six staff in the first institution rated as working at "national levels of research excellence" are impoverished in research funding compared to the four to eight staff in the second institution though they are working at the same level of research excellence. In fact, it is arguably more difficult for an individual to achieve that level of research excellence in a 3b-rated "department" than be one of those at national level of excellence in a 5-rated department. Hence in the current situation, the funding regime gives much less funding to the arguably more deserving. To give a personal illustration of this point, at the University of Sunderland we have had one of the acknowledged international leaders in heterocyclic chemistry research in our School of Pharmacy and yet have never received any hefce QR research funding to support his research because he is in a Unit of Assessment rated two in RAE96 (this has now risen to a rating of 3a in RAE2001). A system that allows this is flawed.

  6.  What changes are necessary to the DfES funding stream for research?

  Most of the issues outlined in paragraphs 2 to 5 above could be resolved by instituting a basic level ("floor") of research funding to Universities that have indicated commitment to research development eg through improvement in successive RAEs (ie improvement in average rating across all academic staff in 2001 in comparison to 1996). The RAE outcome could then be used, as now, to determine a fractional quality element over and above this floor funding, instead of determining distribution of the total amount as it does now.

Professor JR Brown

Deputy Vice-Chancellor

University of Sunderland

15 January 2002

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