Go back

Now, class, prepare to concentrate

Some of the UK’s top arts and humanities institutions get little or no money from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Joseph Milton and Laura Hood report.

A swathe of medium-sized universities as well as a handful of the elite get little Arts and Humanities Research Council funding, despite scoring well in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, an analysis by Research Fortnight shows.

Using the Research Benchmarks tool, Research Fortnight tabulated the amount of AHRC funding received by each UK university in 2009-10 and compared it with a ranking of research quality in the arts and humanities.

The tables on this page show that while many of the higher quality research-intensive institutions, such as the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford and University College London, receive AHRC funding that reflects their strong performance in the RAE, others fare badly.

The University of York, for example, came away with a Research Fortnight Quality Index in the arts and humanities of 59.97 but only secured £46,997 in AHRC grants in 2009-10. The QI is a mark out of 100 and reflects an institution’s quality of research in specific subject areas.

Even the London School of Economics came away with just £216,715 from the AHRC in 2009-10, despite coming out near the top of the Research Fortnight QI table. In contrast, the University of Oxford has a similar QI rating but managed to secure more than £2 million.

“We’re aware that our level of funding is not commensurate with our RAE position,” says David Coombe, director of the LSE’s research division. “Taking law as an example, we came top in the RAE by quality, but if you look at the funding, we came 42nd.”

In the previous year, Oxford secured around 80 times more AHRC funding than the LSE with a total grant pot of over £3.6m.

“The main reason Oxford has so much funding compared with other universities with similar quality ratings is because of the sheer number of our academics applying for and receiving funding,” a spokeswoman for the University of Oxford told Research Fortnight in an email.

Coombe agrees, suggesting that the LSE is not suffering because of the quality of applications but because “we simply don’t apply as much as we might or we could.”

This imbalance between QI rating and AHRC funding appears to be repeated across the sector. Universities from the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, newer institutions and, surprisingly, those with a specialist arts focus are securing relatively small amounts of funding—or nothing at all—for their arts and humanities research. The Royal College of Art (QI of 60.63) secured £21,450 from the AHRC in 2009-10; Birkbeck University of London, (QI of 52.22) received £21,552. The Courtauld Institute of Art (QI 67.5), the Royal Academy of Music and the School of Oriental and African Studies University of London all received nothing.

While others such as the University of Essex, the University of Exeter and Queen Mary University of London won bigger shares of the AHRC budget, they face falling further behind their bigger rivals when the research council tightens its funding rules.

Like the six other research councils, the AHRC announced in its December delivery plan that it intends to “make fewer, longer and larger grants based on established excellence”. For postgraduate funding, this will mean investing a greater proportion of funding into centres of excellence. It has also decided to direct more money than ever into strategic priorities. What’s more, it warns that the “relatively high cost of processing small awards” will have to be considered as it reshapes its funding strategy.

This is very likely to lead to more money being awarded to the Russell Group of research-intensive institutions than before. But a comparison of RAE performance and AHRC funding suggests that the council’s already concentrated funding is not necessarily going to institutions that conduct the best arts and humanities research. If this were the case, we would see a stronger correlation between a high QI and AHRC funding. Smaller institutions may need to think now about the approach they take to securing research council grants as the competition for scant funds heats up.

Excluding postgraduate awards, 39 per cent of the AHRC’s grants go to just 10 institutions and 75 per cent go to just 30 institutions.

The AHRC has the smallest budget of the seven research councils and was handed a cut when the science budget was carved up at the end of last year. As a result, its budget will fall from £100.71 million in 2010‑11 to £99.88m in 2011-12. By 2014-15 its budget will be £98.4m.

It remains to be seen how this policy will affect the distribution of research grants but it seems likely that the imbalance between the bigger players and their smaller equivalents will be further amplified, regardless of how good their RAE results are.


The Research Fortnight Quality Index measures university performance using a mark out of 100. The QI can be used to score institutions based on the quality of research in particular subject areas. Based on the quality of arts and humanities research only, The Courtauld Institute of Art and Imperial College London came top with 67.5. The index is based on the performance of institutions in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise and is calculated by attaching weightings to 4*, 3*, 2*, 1* and U-rated research, according to the ratio 8:4:2:1:0. Institutions with a greater volume of 4* and 3* arts and humanities research will tend to have a larger QI for the arts and humanities; institutions with a greater volume of lower-scoring research will have a comparatively lower QI.

Joseph Milton is a reporter for Wealth Briefing.