UK universities research funding too inflexible warns US uni president

Today’s Financial Times story by David Turner is likely to set the ‘cat amongst the pigeons’ in terms of US-UK higher education relations. Turner reports on an interview with USA Yale university president, Richard Levin, who argues that the UK research funding model simply is not up to the task of delivering world class globally ranked universities. Contrasting the US funding model with the UK, he argues the US model, of selective funding to reward ‘merit’, means that this model is more flexible and “it is also more meritocratic”. The Financial Times reports the Yale president as arguing that

…allocating a large block grant to a university after assessing it for quality department by department results in the weak being pulled up by the strong.

The evidence Yale president Levin points to in support of his case for a more individualistic approach to funding for the UK is that by comparison with the UK, there are a high number of US universities clustered near the top in the global university rankings.

While Levin is of course right, that the US does particularly well on the global university rankings, it is not evident that is is directly an outcome of the individualistic funding strategy for university research by US funding bodies. Rather, the global university ranking system tends to reflect US university strengths and interests (for example, patents, science citation indexes, Nobel awards).

The more important point to be made is how the top US universities do fund their research, as opposed to UK universities. The top US universities have generous endowments, alumni and funds from patents and spin-out companies, while selected universities, such as Stanford and MIT, continue to be the recipients of research funds for military purposes. Top-up research funding comes from various funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation.

stanford.jpg

By contrast, in the UK the government funds research intensive universities through the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE), whilst top-up funding to specific research projects and centers comes from the various funding councils.

Where the US and UK do differ is in how the funding is allocated. In the UK it is the result of a Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) where departments are assessed by panels for the ‘quality’ of their research.

Talk about what will happen to the RAE in the future suggests that it will likely be more individualised assessments, for instance through scores on the various citations indexes. This would then bring the UK’s research funding model more into line with the US, though it is difficult to see how this will be a more meritocratic approach unless there is a reworking of what constitutes merit.

Taken together, unless the UK can challenge and change the basis on which universities are currently ranked globally, it is not likely to alter much the UKs overall place in the global university rankings.

If the UK’s RAE system does more toward a citation/global universities ranking approach, it is likely to embrace a system that neither places a high value on critical and innovative thinking in areas of the social sciences and humanities that are outside of the US’s sphere of intellectual interest and nor on areas of scholarship that do not score well on the global ranking scoreboards. This will surely be a disaster for realising a knowledge society.

Susan Robertson

6 November update: see Martin Knight’s (Chief Operating Officer, Imperial College) 6 November response in the FT.

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