Funding research excellence: research group size, critical mass & performance

University Alliance institutions are proud of the world-leading research that they undertake. They have proved their value through the RAE. The main findings of this research are compelling: that the UK should continue a policy of funding excellence wherever it exists.

For those that argue that first we must build a critical mass in research in order to be excellent, our report demonstrates conclusively that quality is a driver of scale and not vice-versa. Based on an analysis of RAE2008, it is clear that there are small and medium-sized units that perform as well as, and often better than, the largest units. It is also clear that growing these units would not necessarily show further improvement in quality.

Our report also demonstrates why there is no significant correlation between productivity and research unit size. The data provides clear evidence that funding should always follow excellence where it is found, as any metric based on scale would not improve productivity. Indeed it could have the effect of excluding some of the very best units.

There are high-stakes in any of these arguments because sustaining and building the UK research base must be a central tenet of any strategy for growth in the UK economy. Without a system that ensures we fund a healthy and excellent research base, universities will struggle to compete in an increasingly well-funded global sector. Alliance institutions also drive innovation because we know that research that creates real social and economic impact is critical to growth in local communities as well as regional and national economies

As the higher education market at home diversifies, students are likely to recognise the value of joining universities that provide a research informed, academic and entrepreneurial learning environment. Therefore, any coherent vision for the future of the sector must include the role of research and a renewed commitment to funding on the basis of excellence alone. We must also recognise that postgraduate students will be the next generation of researchers and so it is imperative that we build environments that enable them to develop. We risk jeopardising the UK’s future as a world-leader in research and innovation if we do not.

We are grateful to Dr Jonathan Adams and Dr Simon Thomson at Evidence Ltd. for carrying out the research for this report. We hope you find it useful and informative.

Download the full report here.

Further reading