British academics get a gold star in the latest review of U.K. research, and institutions that lifted their performance will not be denied their reward, as feared. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), released today, reports that 64% of the research analyzed was of national or international excellence, compared to just 43% 5 years ago. Meanwhile, the funding body behind the review, the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE), met today and decided to fund most of the top-ranking departments as its formula stipulates, even though the improved rankings mean it has $240 million less on the table than would be due. Lower-ranking departments will suffer from the shortfall.
The RAE is done every several years--the previous assessment was in 1996, the one before that in 1992. In this assessment, 60 expert panels reviewed the research output of 173 higher education institutions. The panels applied a seven-point scale to departments, with the coveted 5 and 5* ratings denoting international excellence. The RAE panelists, all British, considered such factors as publication quality, peer-reviewed external funding, seminar invitations, and journal editorship positions. Three hundred foreign experts examined the 5 and 5* rankings.
But institutions feared that the rankings would mean nothing when it came to funding because of HEFCE's shortfall. At its meeting, however, the HEFCE board chose to apply many of the assessment results after all, which guide its allocation of about $1.4 billion annually. Most departments that garnered a 5 or 5* will receive the money they expect, although caps may be instituted for institutions with many departments that suddenly jumped to top rankings. The biggest losers are lower ranking departments, though the amount of money they will receive has yet to be determined. "The overall improvement in research ratings, combined with the limited amount of funds, means that there will inevitably be some reduction in levels of funding for departments rated below 5*," reads HEFCE's announcement.
"There's no doubt that the research assessment exercise, to my mind, has focused departments in their research strategy," says the University of Bristol's John Enderby, who chaired the physics assessment panel. For example, some departments that received a 4 ranking in 1996 used the money to further boost their status, garnering 5 and 5* rankings this time around. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement, which calculated overall performance based on department rankings, Cambridge moves from third to first in the new rankings, swapping position with rival Oxford. London's Imperial College rose to second from fourth.