UK: Research activity "world leading"

Cambridge University came top of the league again in the latest research assessment exercise carried out by England's higher education funding council, Hefce. The 2008 results, published just before Christmas, will be the last of their kind as the next process will be undertaken with a different method. After reviewing research conducted by 52,400 staff submitted by 159 universities and colleges, Hefce concluded that 54 % of UK research activity came into the top two grades of "world leading" or "internationally excellent".

The RAE has been criticised by academics and unions for some years as being unfair, and concerns were taken up by the Labour government which announced in its 2006 budget that after the 2008 exercise a system of metrics would be developed to inform future allocations of research funding.

Hefce has been consulting the sector and it is likely that it will introduce a metrics based system of assessment for subjects in science, technology, engineering and medicine. A process of peer review is likely to remain for mathematics, statistics, arts, humanities and social studies subjects.

The latest exercise was conducted by Hefce on behalf of the UK's four funding councils. It reported that the results showed the UK continued to set a high global watermark, with "world-leading" research well distributed throughout the sector, and 87% of research recognised as of international quality.

Hefce Chief Executive Professor David Eastwood said: "Although we cannot make a direct comparison with the previous exercise carried out in 2001, we can be confident that the results are consistent with other benchmarks indicating that the UK holds second place globally to the US in significant subject fields.

"One of the most encouraging factors is that the panels reported very favourably on the high-quality work undertaken by early career researchers, which will help the UK to maintain this leading position in the future."

The RAE is used to allocate funds amounting to £1.5 billion (US$2.44 billion) in 2009-10 to the UK's higher education institutions and relies on them to submit details of research in 50 areas of study called units of assessment (UOAs). The universities and colleges can decide on the number of academics and the subjects to give to the councils for scrutiny.

The council noted that:

* 54% of the research was either 'world-leading' (17% in 4*) or 'internationally excellent' (37% in 3*); 1,258 of the 2,363 submissions (53% of total) had at least 50% of their activity rated in the two highest grades. These submissions were found in 118 institutions.

* All the submissions from 16 institutions had at least 50% of their activity assessed as 3* or 4*.

* 84% of all submissions were judged to contain at least 5% world-leading quality research.

* 150 of the 159 higher education institutions (HEIs) that took part in RAE2008 demonstrated at least 5% world-leading quality research in one or more of their submissions.

* 49 higher education institutions have at least some world-leading quality research in all of their submissions.

The Open University was pleased to announce that it had moved up 23 places, securing a hold in the top 50 HEIs, while Leicester University submitted one of the highest proportions of staff of any UK university, and 87% of its research activity was judged to be of international quality.

The Russell Group, which represents 20 of the research-intensive universities, was delighted to say an analysis of the results showed that while the group represented only 12% of all universities, more than 60% of all 4* rated research was undertaken by its members.