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


Memorandum submitted by the Russell Group of Universities

  As context, we would wish to emphasise a number of general points. Firstly, in common with most in Higher Education and indeed beyond, we believe that the RAE has come to be seen quite rightly as a sound and rigorous process which has played an essential role in the recognition, support and promotion of research excellence in Higher Education in the United Kingdom. Secondly, the highest levels of international research excellence (Grade 5 and Grade 5*) in science and technology (which throughout this memorandum we take to include the relevant areas of medicine, veterinary science and social sciences) form an essential platform to ensure the long-term economic competitiveness of the UK, not least in areas of high Government priority such as innovation, exploitation and technology transfer. Thirdly, that the sustenance of the highest quality research in science and technology requires not only major capital support for research facilities and their major renewal, as we have begun to see in the recent JIF and SRIF exercises, but almost more importantly significant recurrent resources to maintain research teams and research leadership and to support the wider research infrastructure of research-intensive universities. And finally, although we naturally in this memorandum concentrate upon science and technology, we would also wish to emphasise the major contribution which the highest quality of research in arts and social sciences makes to the economy and society of our nation, and that many of the comments we make below apply equally to these areas.

  With this as background, we would like to make the following comments concerning the RAE process itself, with particular reference to science and technology.

  1.  We believe that there can be sufficient confidence in the outcome of the 2001 RAE exercise, and that those departments or units assessed as Grade 5 and Grade 5* are genuinely operating in the whole or for the most part at the highest levels of international research quality.

  2.  The RAE has proved an effective mechanism for ensuring selectivity and, therefore, efficiency in the allocation of core funding for the purpose of sustaining high quality research in science and technology. The benefit of such concentration of resources is not simply a matter of economics, for it is only in well supported centres of international research excellence that the necessary research environment can be sustained to ensure the attraction and proper training of the very best research talent for the future, represented for example by our postgraduate and our postdoctoral researchers. As we have said above, high quality research is expensive. While some of these resources need to be delivered by universities themselves (for example by working in collaboration with industry and commerce), the maintenance of the UK's leading-edge competitive advantage in science and technology depends for the most significant part upon the resources being provided by Government. The Transparency Review of Higher Education funding has shown the extent of the present gap between the funding of research and the full cost of that activity, and the recent study conducted for the OST has quantified the remaining infrastructure gap for research. These studies show clearly that the level of research reported in the RAE is not sustainable in the medium to long term without an appropriate increase in funds.

  3.  We believe that there is a productive complementarity between the RAE and Research Council funding. The RAE has served and continues to serve well the objective of providing a degree of stability and relative predictability in a flow of unearmarked research funding that can sustain the context from which to seek earmarked funding. The recognition of departmental achievement is a necessary framework for enhancing the productive success for the targeting of research council funding on specific projects.

  4.  We believe that the RAE has been successful in generating increased levels of high quality research activity in science and technology. Over time, it has made universities pay more explicit attention to research strategies, research management and research performance. This has been accompanied by some identifiable weaknesses. The RAE has a tendency to reward relatively short-term research and may have brought universities to incentivise production by certain deadlines. Although we do not believe that there has been a crude volume versus quality effect, it is worth enquiring whether the nature of science and technology research has been influenced by the existence of the RAE.

  5.  For all these reasons we believe that the RAE process is important and must continue in some appropriate form into the future. While the costs of the RAE to universities and to HEFCE are not insignificant, they are relatively modest when compared, for example, with the project-based peer review of research operated by the Research Councils. Nevertheless, we believe that there should of course be renewed efforts to reduce the costs of the assessment itself through a procedure that would maintain the demonstrable advantages of the exercise in a manner less demanding of time and resource.

  6.  While we recognise that the RAE has a general utility in guiding the allocation of research funds across Higher Education, we would urge that the more significant prize for the UK more generally is its role in identifying areas of real international excellence. In this respect, we feel that more attention might be paid to international benchmarking than can presently be accommodated, including greater international expert representation on assessment panels.

  7.  In the context of the present situation, it is important to emphasize that the benefits, which we have identified above, will disappear comprehensively if there is an unwillingness to provide the resources necessary to sustain the centres of excellence identified by the RAE. The apparent constraints upon HEFCE preventing it from adequately and appropriately funding the outcome of the RAE 2001, especially with regard to Grade 5 and Grade 5*, is in the short term of significant concern to us in our endeavours to retain and motivate our best talent, and if perpetuated in the longer term would become a major threat to continued excellence. Nowhere are these dangers more real than in the area of science and technology, where universities are such key drivers in so many of the Government's priority areas of innovation, exploitation and competitiveness.

  8.  We would urge the Select Committee, therefore, to press for the immediate full and proper funding of the RAE outcome, but especially so for those areas graded 5 and 5* which, have been confirmed by due process, including international ratification, as operating at the highest levels of international research excellence.

  Finally, I should explain that the Russell Group is a voluntary association of the Vice-Chancellors/Principals of the Universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Imperial, Kings College London, Leeds, Liverpool, LSE, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, Sheffield, Southampton, UCL and Warwick, who come together from time to time to discuss issues of common interest and concern, particularly but not exclusively related to research. The Select Committee might wish to note that in the 2001 RAE, 78 per cent of the staff in 5* departments, and 57 per cent of the staff in Grade 5 departments are located within Russell Group Universities. Staff submission rates for Russell Group departments stood at 84.8 per cent, against an overall average of 60 per cent.

  We should be pleased to elaborate on any of the points set out above.

15 January 2002

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