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HEPI analysis reveals the strengths of the UK’s research base

  • 25 March 2010

Research funding selectivity, concentration and excellence – HEPI analysis reveals the strengths of the UK’s research base

A detailed analysis of the strength of the UK’s research base, commissioned by HEPI (the Higher Education Policy Institute) and published today (25 March 2010) reveals that a very small number of institutions and individuals within them produce the truly exceptional research that puts the UK among the world’s leaders in research, and that below those peaks of excellence performance is more evenly spread between institutions. The report notes, moreover, that the UK’s performance relative to the rest of the world began with the introduction of the RAE in the late 1980s.

The analysis compares the research produced in UK universities with that produced elsewhere in the world, and reveals the extent to which just five universities — UCL, Imperial, LSE, Oxford and Cambridge — are responsible for a large proportion of the world-class research produced in this country. By contrast, research produced by Russell Group universities outside this “Golden Triangle” falls a little behind that produced in the 1994 Group of universities, with that produced in the rest of the sector significantly behind.

The report concludes that whereas the present policy of selectively funding excellent research wherever it is found has had the effect of concentrating research funds in a relatively small number of institutions, there is no general case for explicitly funding research according to historical institutional characteristics.

Commenting on the HEPI report findings, Bahram Bekhradnia, HEPI’s Director, said:

“Concentration as a policy cannot be right, if it means funding less good research that happens to be conducted in a research intensive university, at the expense of better research in a university that is not marked out generally as research intensive.

“On the other hand any unintended diminution of the present balance of concentration might be of concern if it impacted on the overall performance of the system: presently, we just do not know whether this is the case.

“Yet, as will be seen from figure 3 of the report, truly outstanding research — identified here as research cited four times the world average and even eight times the world average — appears throughout the sector, as, conversely, does research that is entirely uncited — 20% of the UK’s total research output, and as much as 15% of that produced in “Golden Triangle” universities is uncited. Research quality is highly concentrated in a small number of universities, but we would be cutting off a significant amount of such outstanding research if we were to seek excessive concentration of funding and such a policy would equally be supporting significant amount of research of more modest quality. The policy challenge is to get the balance right between providing sufficient funding to support adequately the small number of universities where so much of the world-class research is produced, and ensuring adequate support for outstanding research in the generality of universities. The indications are that the policy pursued in the last two decades has broadly achieved this.”

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