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Did goal posts move before REF got on?

After the RAE 2001, Sunderland was crowned the "best new university for research", based on the overall grade point average per FTE of academic staff, and then our QR funding was cut by 40 per cent, from about £1.6 million to £1 million.

I suppose it was our own fault. Ratings of 3bs had attracted funding in the RAE 1996 and, even given the sector’s increased performance, we had naturally assumed that, with 3as, we wouldn’t lose out. I wonder what will happen this time, with the interesting graded profiles?

While we are well aware that we do not reside on the point of a golden multi-angled two-dimension shape, we do think that we undertake research that is of a volume and quality that is appropriate to and required for our mission. Like many other institutions, we believe that research informs teaching and enhances all levels of the student experience, which is core to our mission. As a result, we undertake research across the full range of our subject areas.

Unlike some new universities, we have made submissions to the RAE in nearly every one of our teaching areas, and we have been rated internationally in all and world-leading in many.

We value all levels of research and, as in 2001, we also submitted a relatively high proportion of staff, over 40 per cent, which is more than many of our peers. With relatively little peril of cliff-edge effects in funding, unless we have been unlucky with the 5-per-cent roundings, this approach seems pretty risk free.

We will expect to see our profiles fairly low in the various subject grading tables that will inevitably develop. But we are thick skinned, and can always rely on someone to calculate the average profile–be it grade point average or one of the myriad of other possibilities–for the whole university, including those staff not submitted. And this is where we do well against many of our peers.

Although they may have a better profile and, in some cases, even a better power rating (multiplying by the FTE submitted), our submission of 40 per cent of academic staff lifts the average rating in the institution as a whole. Of course, it is also where we fall further behind the ‘research high fliers’ (or whatever the de rigueur phrase is this week), but we recognise that that is not our mission.

We also know that, as a small institution with fewer than 500 academic members of staff, we will languish near the bottom of the power tables unless our relative size is taken into account.

However, it appears that many HEIs could not agree on how to count their staff, and so the HESA data will not be readily available (and of course was not collected at RAE submission time). Luckily though, the tables that include the percentage of staff submitted in the calculation will tend to favour Russell Group members, and their kind, which submit high proportions of their staff. The league tables that develop from these data will once again return us to the upper echelons of the rankings of the the new universities, which is where our mission requires us to be. For Sunderland, for once, it does seem to be a question of “if you can’t beat them, join them”.

Of course, it is not all doom and gloom. Whatever funding regime HEFCE comes up with, the graded profile system seems sure to deliver us some QR allocation in most of our subject areas, with all of the knock-on benefits in terms of other funding streams (research capital, postgraduate research, charities’ support, and so on)

Overall, the RAE 2008 certainly seems to have levelled the playing field in terms of opportunity for universities such as Sunderland to follow their mission and be rewarded for it. Notwithstanding the issues of league tables, we do hope that we will be properly rewarded for our efforts this time. In 2001, we gained 3 grade 4s and 9 grade 3as, but the latter netted QR for only one in a capability area.

But our confidence has recovered. The only way our mission could hinder us this time is if only 4*s are funded–but surely HEFCE can’t have generated all these lovely profiles to use only one element of them in the funding formula. I think we will score this time!Simon Kerridge is Head of Graduate Research Support at the University of Sunderland and Secretary of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators.