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  • Ian Ritchie : Business AM

Academics have learned to play funding game too well

With excellent ratings widespread, there is insufficient research cash to go around

GARRISON KEILLOR, the American humorist, lives in a mythical home town where all the children are “above average’. This week, the bodies which dispense the funds for Britain’s university research must be wondering if they have also somehow moved to Lake Wobegone, for the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) and its sister body south of the border, HEFC, are facing some pretty tough challenges.

The cause of this difficulty is the culmination of the latest research assessment exercise (RAE). Held every five years, this attempts to measure the performance of all the research departments in all of Britain’s universities. The RAE then grades these departments, just as if they were hotels, from one to five, with five meaning they are “internationally competitive”. Extra-gifted departments receive a star attached to their five rating which, in the university world, is every bit as treasured as if it were given by Michelin.

The RAE is a huge effort. Dozens of specialist panels sit in judgment on the various subject areas. Each university painstakingly collects evidence of its good performance, describes its strategy for research and how it aims to create “centres of excellence”. The top academics are listed, along with the details of any prestigious publications and other recognition that they have achieved during the past five years.

For a typical RAE panel, this material fills a medium-sized suitcase and the panelists have to read through it all and reach intelligent conclusions. In practice, most of the panelists are fellow academics - the specialist knowledge required about the processes of the academic world is beyond most non-academics.

At last, the latest RAE marathon is almost done and the results will be published next week. Already, there are indications that there has been a massive inflation of grades.

It is emerging from HEFC’s lofty perch at the top of London’s Centre Point, that half the academics in England are in departments that are rated internationally excellent - well in excess of 500 departments, employing 25,000 researchers have been awarded five and five-plus-a-star ratings.

HEFC doesn’t know quite what to do next. The £1bn of block research funding which it normally hands out will have to be spread very thin if it uses its standard allocation process. Under this scenario, funding to long-established world-leading research groups would be cut, which might cause irreparable damage to their research capability. On the other hand, departments which have newly demonstrated a world-class capability are entitled to expect that they will be fully funded. That, after all, is the whole point of the RAE.

Nobody knows quite why all these researchers are performing so well. For years, we have been told that British academics’ pay and conditions are so bad that we can no longer attract and retain the best people. This has been described as a looming crisis and a threat to the whole UK research base.

Now that these RAE results are emerging, it seems that higher education research is not in crisis after all. Despite the abysmally poor pay and conditions, more than half of them are performing at international standard. Politicians might be forgiven for wondering: “Crisis, what crisis?”

Is it because they are “marking their own homework”? Actually, the answer is probably that, after 15 years of practice, the universities have learned how to play the RAE game rather well.

Now HEFC is indicating that it might just postpone funding allocations for a year, while it works out what to do. This will be massively unpopular with the academics that have spent five years becoming fighting fit for this RAE.

And what about Scotland? We have always punched above our weight in this field and, although we have only around 9% of the population, we traditionally attract about 14% of the academic research funding. Early rumours emerging from SHEFC are that more than 70% of Scotland’s researchers make the international grade, putting us well ahead of the rest of the UK.

Very impressive, sure, but how on earth is SHEFC going to fund it all?

As Garrison Keillor might say: “That’s this week’s news from Scotland’s universities, where all the professors are strong, all the lecturers are good looking and all the researchers are... above average?’

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