Oxbridge and London retain grip on university research prowess

UCL has moved ahead of Cambridge in some analysis of the REF 2014 results. Tim Ireland/PA Archive

The dominance of a “golden triangle” of universities in the latest research assessment exercise has renewed concerns that other universities may get less government research funding in future.

The results of the Research Excellence Framework 2014 (REF), the world’s largest national assessment of university research, showed that three-quarters of the research carried out over the past six years at UK universities was world-leading or internationally excellent.

The “golden triangle” is a term used to refer to Oxford, Cambridge and the research-intensive universities in London including UCL, Imperial, King’s College London and the London School of Economics, all of which have performed well in the 2014 REF.

According to a ranking created from the results by the publication Research Fortnight, Oxford has once again come top of an index based on “research power”, which indicates how much funding universities are likely to receive based on their performance in the REF. UCL has overtaken Cambridge to move into in second position since the last time a similar exercise was done in 2008.

Through this method of analysing the results, Edinburgh moved up to fourth, switching places with Manchester which is now fifth. Meanwhile, King’s College London moved from 11th position to seventh. Some of the bigger universities in the north of England found themselves slipping slightly in the power ranking, such as Leeds which fell from eighth to tenth and Sheffield from ninth to 12th. But there were some success stories among smaller universities in the north of England, such as Northumbria, which climbed from 81st to 52nd.

More research ‘world-leading’

The 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) analysed the research of 52,061 academic staff submitted by 154 universities in a peer-review process overseen by panels of academics. This was just over half of the 91,925 staff eligible to be submitted in the REF, according to data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Overall, 30% of the work was rated as four-star, or world-leading research, with 46% rated as three-star, or internationally excellent. This was a marked increase on the results of a similar exercise in 2008, in which 17% was rated as four-star and 37% as three-star, causing some in the sector to suggest that changes to the way research was measured in the REF 2014 had skewed the result.

The REF results are important because they are used to inform the allocation of the research funding universities receive. Although the funding formula has yet to be published, institutions with the most four-star and three-star quality research will receive the most funding. More than two thirds, or 68%, of research rated as “world-leading”, or four-star, is being done at the 24 Russell Group universities.

Richard Jones, pro-vice chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Sheffield, where 85% of the research entered for assessment was judged four-star or three-star, said it was “fairly easy to predict” that there would be more concentration of research in future. He said this may get “very acute”. But Jones dismissed claims of a North-South divide opening up, saying there was excellence at institutions across the country.

No ‘privileged position’

David Price, UCL’s vice-provost for research, said: “That concentration has happened because of the excellence of the work that’s done there. We don’t get any money without competing for it. We’re not in any privileged position because we happen to be in WC1,” he said, adding it can actually be quite challenging to be based in central London.

Overall, 82% of UCL’s research was rated either four-star or three-star. Price said the good results should help determine how block funding from the higher education funding council is distributed. “We should get more, but if there’s a funding environment where there’s a huge cut, we’ll be cut less,” he said. “Relative to our competitors, we will do better.”

But some smaller and newer universities have warned that important research is being left out. Peter Strike, vice-chancellor of the University of Cumbria, said that funding should be restored for universities whose research is rated as two-star in the REF.

“It makes it more difficult for smaller universities,” he said. Of the research Cumbria submitted for assessment in the REF, 29% was either four-star or three-star. “We’re a tiny university,” Strike said, “and even the smallest of us… have some top-class people doing some outstanding work.”

Yet some newer universities have managed to perform well. Andrew Wathey, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, which rose from 81st to 52nd in rankings of research power, said: “We have created the second-strongest pool of research activity of all modern universities.” He said that Northumbria had doubled the number of staff it submitted for the REF 2014 compared to 2008 and that its good results were down to the work of early-career researchers working alongside established academics. “Northumbria’s story is clear evidence that geographic location is no barrier to world-leading research,” he said.

Impact on real world

For the first time, the REF, which was carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and its equivalents in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, also analysed the impact of academic research on the wider world, including both its benefit to the economy, society, culture and policy. Panels of academics and users of research from across business and the public sector judged that 44% of the case studies they assessed had an “outstanding” impact and the impact of another 40% were “very considerable”.

A separate ranking of universities on their research impact by the Times Higher Education, was largely dominated by universities focused on medicine and life sciences. It was topped by the Institute of Cancer Research, with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in second place.

For more on the 2014 REF, including an assessment of “impact”, click here.