University Alliance responds to Russell Group call to restrict research funding

The Vice-Chancellor of Northumbria University, Professor Andrew Wathey, is Deputy Chairman of the University Alliance, and speaks on Research for member universities at the heart of the sector who are both research-engaged and business focussed.

Responding to the outspoken remarks of Russell Group Chair Professor Michael Arthur, published in Times Higher Education (October 22nd 2009) he said:

“Inciting unfounded panic in advance of the Higher Education Framework is not in the country’s interest. We need calmly to assess what is best for Britain and what will support its overall capacity for real world innovation and broad competitiveness in demanding times.”

“The 2008 RAE showed that excellence is more widely spread than previously thought. Not so often said is that it showed the same to be true of less good research, with small quantities of 1* research appearing in even the most research-intensive universities. There is no real case for funding that work, even if it does appear in those institutions.”

“The guaranteed ‘road to mediocrity’ is surely to fund research based on heritage rather than on excellence.”

“Preserving the principle of meritocracy in research funding through open competition will deliver far more than preserving the status quo.”

“Members of the University Alliance believe that the UK must continue to fund excellence in research, wherever it exists, if we are to maintain our position as second in the world behind the US.”

The recently appointed Director of University Alliance, Libby Aston, who is a former research head at the Russell Group, confirmed:

“A majority of world-leading research takes place within research-intensive universities – but by no means all of it. Neither is all research undertaken within Russell Group universities of world-leading quality, according to the 2008 research assessment exercise (RAE) results. The proposal put forward by the Chair of the Russell Group, to restrict research funding to just 25 universities because they have ‘been highly successful in the past’ would be highly damaging to the UK research base. Put simply, his proposals would see funding taken away from world-leading 4* research in research-active universities, to support the long tail of 1* and 2* research in his 25 chosen universities.”

Insiders point out that with the universities in the 1994 Group also demonstrating real research intensity, Professor Arthur’s 25 may not be the same as others’. Professor Andrew Wathey, for University Alliance, comments:

“It is the principle of funding excellence in research that has driven up the quality of the UK research base since the introduction of the RAE. This principle is not a luxury but an essential if we are to continue to maintain the breadth and depth of the UK research base. In a tight fiscal environment this principle becomes more important, not less.”

The UK operates one of the most highly concentrated research funding models in the world, with just 5 universities receiving around a third of all HEFCE research funding and 10 universities nearly half. Medical and STEM research funding is particularly highly concentrated because of the relationship between quality and critical mass in these areas – but this is not so outside the hard sciences.

Northumbria’s Vice-Chancellor concluded:

“To fund research based on historic record rather than expert scrutiny would undermine the imperative for constant improvement. Funding excellence in research, wherever it exists, will ensure the future of the UK research base. With this principle in place it is possible for the Russell Group, or any group of universities, to increase their concentration of research funding – they just have to improve the quality of their research.”


Further details:

Jonathan Ray, Director of Communications, Northumbria University.

A member of The University Alliance

07830 507094 or 0191 227 4189



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