U.K. Universities: A League of Their Own

London--The British government last week released the final tally of the world's most comprehensive peer review process: a league table rating the research status of departments and institutions. This year's scorecard revealed how soccer-style transfers of researchers and other tactics aimed at improving a department's rating have taken over the world of British higher education.

It's no surprise that British universities are jockeying for position, for much depends on where they place in the league table. Specifically, the results will be used to distribute $1.1 billion in block grants for research infrastructure to university departments next year, and to fix such funding for a further 3 years.

So the $3.2 million exercise, which happens every 4 years, was exhaustive. Funding bodies in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland reviewed the work of more than 50,000 academic staff in 2,700 university and college departments throughout the United Kingdom. They rated departments in 60 subjects at levels ranging from 1 (almost no work of national excellence) to 5* (the majority of work is of international excellence).

Next month, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) will meet to decide exactly how to translate the results into a formula for distributing research funds, but the councils have already decided that departments earning grades 1 and 2 will receive no research infrastructure money at all. An exception will be made for departments in new universities starting to establish a reputation, such as those created from former polytechnics in 1992.

Certain university strategies apparently helped boost ratings. For example, universities could choose which academics they put forward to be rated. Researchers were judged on their four best publications in the past 4 years, so departments could improve their average rating by not entering staff who concentrate on teaching. Oxford, which included almost all its faculty members in previous exercises, significantly improved its ratings this time round by being more selective--almost one in 10 professors were left out. Several universities that used such tactics were among the better placed in the league table. "Universities are now quite active in management to bolster ratings," says HEFCE policy researcher Bahram Bekhradnia. The results have even prompted speculation that a small number of the top-rated universities might form a "super-league" of research-intensive institutions.

"Some people take the view that the exercise is a disastrous imposition and waste of resources," says Peter Ashworth of the learning and teaching research institute at Sheffield Hallam, who helped organize the university's submission. "But I think it helps shake things up and can reveal unexpected areas of research strength. It can counter entrenched opinions."

U.K. Research Top 20

Institution Weighted Average Score
University of Oxford 6.67
University of Cambridge 6.49
London School of Economics and Political Science 6.27
Imperial College of Science 5.98
University College London 5.82
UMIST 5.60
University of Bath 5.54
University of Warwick 5.51
Lancaster University 5.49
University of York 5.48
University of Essex 5.44
University of Sussex 5.35
University of Edinburgh 5.34
University of Bristol 5.33
University of Wales, Cardiff 5.22
University of St. Andrews 5.22
Cranfield University 5.22
University of Durham 5.21
University of Sheffield 5.20
University of Southampton 5.19

[table compiled by The Times Higher Education Supplement]