World leading research needs investment


Statistics must always be treated with suspicion. Mark Twain once said: “Facts are stubborn but statistics are more pliable.” He also coined the immortal phrase: “lies, damned lies and statistics”.

The university statistics industry went into overdrive last week. It may have escaped your notice – people have other things to worry about at this time of year – but on Thursday the results of the 2014 Research Excellent Framework were announced.

The REF, as it is affectionately known, is an audit of research quality: it determines where the money goes. University funding is labyrinthine, but put simply universities get a fixed amount for teaching. Money for research – £2 billion – goes to those who perform best in the REF.

But how do you compare the work of a biological scientist in Ulster University with that of a lawyer at Queen’s and a medieval historian in Oxford? The REF, carried out every six years or so, is the mechanism for doing that.

This time around (statistics warning) almost 200,000 academic papers were assessed, and the work of more than 52,000 academics was analysed by their peers – people who should know what is good and what is dud.

There is a starred rating system, four stars meaning research is world-leading (the gold standard), three meaning it is internationally excellent. Two-star and one-star research is not worth writing home about. The subject panels were also asked to assess the impact of research (an attempt to ensure university research is relevant to the needs of society).

So what does the REF mean for Northern Ireland?

UU new

First the bad news: overall the REF shows the growing strength of universities in south east England – the so-called golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London. In particular, London universities are on the rise, challenging Oxbridge, and they will take even more of the funding pot.

That’s not good for civic universities like Queen’s, or their regions. Queen’s and UU will get research funding – in the region of £50 million – from the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) but the big money comes from the UK’s Research Councils. Their £2 billion will be concentrated around London.

If it is to protect the economic benefits that come from university research, the Executive must counter-balance the London effect with cash. The CBI got it spot on last week when it said the Executive would be bonkers to disinvest in higher education.

For a raft of reasons, including recruiting the best staff and students, position in league tables is important. Queen’s, one of the elite Russell Group, is not yet where it needs to be; but it is in the top 20 of the headline REF table, just. Research Fortnight places it at 19 in its research power rank.

Ulster, a much younger university, comes a creditable 38 in the national research league tables, with good performances in biomedical sciences, nursing, art and design among others.

But in terms of research firepower, Queen’s blows UU out of the water. Both universities employ about 1,000 academic staff each. Queen’s submitted 868 of them. Ulster entered only 449. (One of the tricks used to maximise rankings position is to submit only staff with research credibility.)

This is one area where the statistics are misleading. When you look at percentages of staff ranked as world leading or internationally excellent, there is not much difference between Queen’s (75 per cent) and UU (72 per cent).

But translate percentages into people and you get a different story. At Queen’s, some 650 people are in the top two categories, double the UU figure. (Percentages are the most pernicious statistics of all.)

Queen’s may not benefit from its high staff return in the headline table, but Times Higher Education has looked at research intensity and places Queen’s at an impressive joint eight in the UK because of its breadth and depth.

Ulster will pay the price for its lower staff return when DEL hands out research cash. More than two thirds of DEL’s research pot is likely to go to Queen’s.

On the plus side, any region would want to have two top 40 institutions so Northern Ireland has something to be thankful for.

Universities attract clever people, and money; companies look for centres of academic excellence and invest there. Economies grow.

But with Executive disarray, and a budget that fails to meet the economy’s needs, Northern Ireland is unlikely to take full advantage of this REF, with dire consequences for all if underinvestment undermines our university’s competitiveness with better-funded institutions in the rest of the UK.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on December 22 2014