Controversial research table puts Cambridge on top

News Editor 15 January 2009

Cambridge University has been named as the top UK University for research, following a seven year assesement in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) for 2008, beating Oxford and LSE.

The RAE, conducted in England by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), ranks higher education institutions according to the quality of their research.

This is then used in the council’s allocation of funds for research, which are distributed according to quality.

Cambridge came second in the exercise this year – slipping from the top spot of 2001 – behind the Institute of Cancer Research. This makes the university the highest ranked non-specialist institution. Cambridge came top in chemistry, architecture, Italian and anthropology, among others.

The University has expressed its happiness with the results.

Professor Ian Leslie, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Cambridge, stated: “The RAE results reflect the strength, depth and breadth of the research at Cambridge, and we are very pleased that the global quality of our academics has been recognised.

“Over 70 per cent of our volume was deemed ‘world leading’ or ‘internationally excellent.”

Yet, David Sweeney, director of research at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, was keen to clarify that “no single institution” had come out the best.

He told The Times Higher Education: “I don’t think you can say there is one institution that has clearly come top. There are many measures of performance, the choice of which will vary the order.”

The RAE has itself been the subject of strong criticism by representatives of other institutions.

There are suggestions that the selective submission of only strong staff at some universities may have distorted results. Such attempts should have been exposed in data to be collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, but the collection had to be abandoned after a mistake made in November by HEFCE.

Some complaints have suggested that this was deliberate, after some universities put pressure on HEFCE not to reveal discriminatory submissions.

When funding is eventually allocated, in March this year, it will be according to ‘research power’ , which multiplies average research scores by the number of staff submitted, penalising those universities which fail to submit weaker researchers.

According to this measure, Oxford will in fact be entitled to more funding than Cambridge.

Despite criticism, HEFCE’s Chief Executive insisted that the RAE has proven the quality of research in the UK remained high.

Speaking to The Guardian, he said:

“This represents an outstanding achievement. A total of 150 of the 159 institutions have some work of world-leading quality, while 49 have research of the highest quality in all of their submissions.”

Anna Croall

News Editor