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University research triumphs will help with levelling up agenda, say experts

Submitted research from UK universities is recognised as internationally excellent (Chris Ison/PA)
Submitted research from UK universities is recognised as internationally excellent (Chris Ison/PA)

UK universities’ research excellence is evenly spread across the four nations of the UK, with experts stating this will help with the Government levelling up agenda.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF), which covers 157 universities submitting the work of 76,000 academic staff, found that overall, 41% of submitted research was “world-leading”, while a further 43% was “internationally excellent”.

At least 15% of research was considered world-leading in three-quarters of the UK’s universities, while more than 80% of research was judged world-leading or internationally excellent across each UK nation and English region.

The results will mean a funding boost for universities that have done well in the rankings, as high scores in the REF, carried out by Research England, mean institutions have more access to £2 billion of public research funding.

Experts have said this will help with the Government’s levelling up agenda and could highlight previously overlooked “pockets of excellence”.

While universities in the Russell Group were ranked highly, other universities, such as Northumbria, had leaped up the rankings.

Northumbria University recorded the largest growth in research power, moving up 27 places to 23rd across the UK from its previous position in 2014.

Vice-Chancellor, Andrew Wathey, said that the outcome “moves us clearly into territory formerly the preserve of the Russell Group of universities”.

“Northumbria is the first modern university to cross the clear, blue water that separated the old and the new parts of the sector, and others are following,” he added.

Northumbria previously rose from 80th place to 50th in 2014, during the last REF. The university said that this made Newcastle, where Northumbria University is situated, combined with Durham, a “northern research powerhouse”, with the largest city-area concentration of researchers outside London.

“This is important for the economy of the North East, for inward investment – public and private – for future collaboration between the universities and business, and for the levelling up impacts of research,” Professor Wathey added.

Steven Hill, research director at Research England, said: “I think that the UK research system is well placed to meet the Government’s ambitions for levelling up”.

Sarah Richardson, editor of Research Professional News, told the PA news agency that their analysis showed the top universities had lost some of their market share of research excellence.

Between them, Oxford, UCL, Cambridge, King’s, Imperial and LSE had lost 2.4 percentage points of market share between 2014 and 2021, she said, while the universities increasing in market share by at least 0.3 percentage points were Northumbria, Exeter, Manchester Metropolitan, Liverpool and Cardiff.

She said that the gap between the top universities and others across the country “looks narrower”, and that “it’s enough of a shift to suggest an encouraging trend, that the rest of the country is closer to those institutions than previously thought”.

“What the REF does is, it will highlight where there’s already excellent research taking place around the country,” she said, adding that the shift predated the Government’s “huge focus” on levelling up.

The Government might see the results from universities around the country as a way of furthering this agenda, where there were “pockets of excellence that have gone below the radar”, she said.

Oxford University had the highest volume of world-leading research, and made the largest submission of research compared with any other university, submitting more than 3,600 researchers into 29 subject areas.

Professor Louise Richardson, the university’s vice-chancellor, said that the results showed Oxford was a “research powerhouse”.

University College London came second, with 93% of its research graded “world leading” and “internationally excellent”.

Its research scored a “grade point average” of 3.50 (out of 4), rising from 3.22 in 2014, with a total of 3,432 of its academics involved in the submission.

Cambridge University was third, Edinburgh fourth and Manchester fifth. At Cambridge, 93% of submissions were ranked “world-leading” or “internationally excellent” and 91% of STEM submissions were also ranked in these categories.

Stephen Toope, Cambridge University vice-chancellor, said that the results “highlight the strength of our research environment and outputs, and the significant impact that our research has across the world”.

Dinah Birch, professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool, who chaired the REF panel on arts and humanities, said that the range of the research and its wider benefits was “astonishing”.

“Everything from the fiction of Anthony Trollope, to the nature articles that make up the substance of the universe, to the identification of new materials for manufacturing innovation, are a dizzying array of intellectual discovery,” she said.

Unions have said that the REF process is a “bureaucratic nightmare” which can entrench inequality, given how the results impact funding allocations.

University and College Union (UCU) general secretary, Jo Grady, said: “The UK is home to outstanding researchers and produces world leading research, year in, year out.

“But the Research Excellence Framework remains a flawed, bureaucratic nightmare and emblematic of a research culture obsessed with arbitrarily designating institutions or departments as “winners” or “losers”.

“It is a drain on the time and resources of university staff, and funding often entrenches structural inequalities.”