Thumbs up for fresh formula to gauge university funding

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What's the best way to divide £8 billion (US$15 billion) in annual funding between Britain's 100-plus universities? A fresh approach to the challenge was revealed last week, and looks to have the qualified backing of academics and administrators.

The plan would revamp the Research Assessment Exercise, one of the world's most extensive attempts to measure the performance of university departments. The UK government uses the findings to allocate block grants that subsidize research and teaching at each university.

But the last assessment, in 2001, drew sharp criticism. So the plan would scrap its most contentious component — a seven-point ranking scale for every university department that tended to reward small variations in performance with big differences in funding.

In its place, the funding councils will draw up a more detailed profile of each department's output. Each piece of work submitted to the exercise, such as a published book or paper, will be awarded between zero and four stars, with the top two rankings corresponding to work of international significance. The profile will show what percentage of submissions achieved each ranking, and how many researchers entered work.

The councils say these profiles will provide a more subtle snapshot of performance, allowing money to be distributed more fairly. They also hope the profiles will help identify pockets of excellence in average departments — something that was lost when scores were averaged to create the old rankings. “The true scale and strength of the best work will be more visible,” says Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

University administrators have praised the councils for ditching some of the proposals made last May in an outside review of the assessment exercise (see Nature 423, 574; 200310.1038/423574b). A proposal to allow less research-intensive institutes to go through a ‘light-touch’ assessment has not been taken up, nor has the idea of running interim evaluations between main assessments, which take place roughly once every six years.

But one gripe hasn't been resolved — the funding councils have denied requests from universities to publish the formulae that link their profiles to the amount of money they get.

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Giles, J. Thumbs up for fresh formula to gauge university funding. Nature 427, 667 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/427667b

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