Strangely, universities are seldom ranked primarily on their undergraduate experiences and reputation – there’s a bit more to it than purely how students get through their three or two hours before donning the mortarboard hat.  Nowadays, the government’s big drive to make the UK a world-leader in research is beginning to make in-roads into institutions – many are now jockeying for position to secure valuable funding that could not only alter their fortunes, but also change the world in some way.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) has released its annual analysis of research conducted at 154 institutions in the United Kingdom – it involved looking at the research performed by over 52,000 academics.  Every year, it analyses the outputs of universities and institutions and grades them as such:

  • 4 Star – Where the work is considered ‘world-leading’ in terms of rigour, originality and significance.
  • 3 Star – The world is considered internationally-recognised as excellent, but cannot be considered of the very highest standard.
  • 2 Star – The work is internationally recognised.
  • 1 Star – The research warrants national recognition
  • Unclassified – The work is not considered to be of national recognition standard, or does not meet the published definition of true research.

The work of academics up and down the nation are compiled and graded in order to give a final ‘mark’ to universities and then rank them all relative to each other.  For many years, the very top was dominated by two very famous names: Oxford and Cambridge.  A massive academic record and former students leaving substantial sums of money has meant that the universities haven’t been short on research funds – they can attract the best people in the world and so gain that reputation.

Or so I thought, anyway.  For many years it’s been a one-two or Oxbridge – one’s up there and the other sits in second place.  This, however, changed for the first time.

The traditional dominance is at an end, according to the latest set of results from the REF.  It is now University College London (UCL) with the highest proportion of 4* research in the UK, not one of the Oxbridge universities.  Though, overall, Oxford sits atop the list, for the first time UCL has managed to split the two and force Cambridge into third place.

The top ten in total looks like this – the power rating is how each university ranks compared to the top institution.

1. Oxford (100%)

2. UCL (97.5%)

3. Cambridge (85.5%)

4. Edinburgh (62.6%)

5. Manchester (54.1%)

6. Imperial College London (52.2%)

7. Kings College London (51.3%)

8. Nottingham (45.6%)

9. Bristol (40%)

10. Leeds (38.4%)

What one notes is that not are UCL ahead of Cambridge, but they’re closer in terms of marks to overtaking Oxford than Cambridge are to claiming the second spot back.

It’s also interesting to note that all of the London-based institutions in the top 10 either held or rose up the tables.  Meanwhile – with the notable exception of Edinburgh – the ‘northern’ universities of Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham all lost ground.  Outside of the top 10, London School of Economics climbed four places to 23rd, whilst Liverpool, York, Loughborough, Lancaster and Sheffield – all considered north by London standards – all experienced noticeable drops down the table, despite their academic reputations.

Clearly, the big winners in all of this are those who have experienced noted climbs – it’s rightly a time for celebration and focus.  However, I’m not the only one who was slightly troubled by the drop from several academically-noted places based up north – William Cullerne Brown, from the analytical group Research Fortnight, believes that the North “is taking a hammering.”

He would also add that “The government is indeed rebalancing the economy – but towards London instead of away from it.”

I’m not sure whether to congratulate or err on the side of caution with this one.  It’s great that the traditional harping on about an elite and then everyone else is on its way to the end, but one does wonder how much of an expense it comes at.  Areas of northern cities are re-invigorated and renovated and universities receive greater grants… but then the private donors and supporters focus the money in London more.  If it’s being driven by the government then you do wonder how much of a divide is being created.

Ultimately, the results determine how much the REF believe universities should get from the £2bn pot for public funding this coming year.  However, it’s clear that private donations and the like are likely behind the expansion plans at both Imperial and UCL and this’ll speed up successes.  It’s obviously down to the individual where their money goes – quite rightly too – but it’s that boost that means that universities can get more research done and claim more of the money.  It feels like a vicious circle, if you see what I mean.

The director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, Nick Hillman, argues that unless the funding increases, there’s a real risk that the funding will get even more concentrated.  Even UCL’s provost – Michael Arthur agreed that there is a “London factor” at play in the results.

It did strike me as a bit odd that the pot for over 52,000 researchers and over 150 institutions stood at £2bn – if it were equally divided between 154 that would mean £12m each (though in reality Oxford will take home over 10 times that as the leader).  To me a £2bn pot sounds a little on the thin side if we’re talking about the entire nation – note that Harvard University (2011 figure) would have spend around £410m on its own, more than 20% of the total budget.

An increase in funding and contributions into the research pot would surely increase standards even further – attracting the best graduates into research whilst ensuring the regional bias we’re seeing is reduced.

Of course, Home Secretary Theresa May has another poorly thought-out immigration idea to force international students out the day their course finishes – they’ll have to reapply for visas and jobs from abroad.  All in all, increases in funding and the end of regional bias might not make the slightest bit of difference anyway… the labs may well be empty anyway.


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