Published online 18 March 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.133

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Elite English universities gain in 2010 funding round

But other institutions left with a smaller slice of the pie.

UCLUniversity College London was one of a group of five research universities that together received a greater share of funds than last year.UCL

Top research-performing institutions in the UK, including the universities of Cambridge and Oxford and Imperial College London, are the winners in this year's allocation of £1.6 billion (US$2.5 billion) in public funds for research to the UK's 130 universities. But the move to give a few elite institutions a larger share of research cash means a smaller share for other universities — including those producing research rated world class.

The research funds, distributed directly to universities by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), have grown by 2% in cash terms from last year. The council has this year further concentrated funding in universities where research was considered to be 'world leading' in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise — and so reduced the proportion awarded for research graded as 'internationally excellent and internationally recognised'.

This decision sees the five best research universities in the UK win more of the money than they did last year, with the poorer performing universities losing out. This year the five top-performing institutions are awarded 39.2% of funds available for science subjects, up from 38.2% the previous year.

Alan Langlands, chief executive of HEFCE, told a press conference, "In making the allocation we tried to stay true to the UK's aims by protecting science, technology and engineering subjects and concentrating funding on world-leading research".

Rich get richer

The University of Oxford is the biggest winner, receiving £126 million for research — a rise of 6% on its budget for the previous year. The University of Cambridge comes in a close second, winning nearly £118 million, up by 3.7% in 2009/10, followed by University College London, which is awarded just under £109 million, an increase of 4.3%, and Imperial College, which sees its research budget rise by 3.3% to £95.7 million.

Some of the biggest losers include the universities of Liverpool and Plymouth, which see their budgets drop by more than £448,000 and nearly £351,000, respectively.

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Universities will receive the research funding immediately. They will also be invited to bid for a share of another £10 million later this year for teaching in science subjects.

Steve Smith, president of Universities UK (UUK), the main representative body for the higher education sector, says, "While we appreciate HEFCE's efforts to protect core university funding, around half of higher education institutions have seen a cash decrease in comparison with 2009/10, and this can never be considered good news for the sector. But UUK recognises the pressures imposed by the current economic climate, and notes that in the majority of cases these decreases have been 1% or less."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, which represents university staff, says, "You cannot make cuts without serious consequences. We believe the cuts could lead to thousands of jobs being lost and the staff who survive the cull being left with more students to teach and less time to spend with them." 

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