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Welsh funding tailored to growing local needs

From the perspective of higher education in Wales, the first thing to say about the current RAE is how important it is to have maintained a process for assessing the quality of research that applies across the entire UK.

In April 2006, the prospect of moving rapidly towards an entirely metrics-based approach for assessment and funding, at least for STEM subjects, introduced turbulence into the process, which was disturbing, not least, because the initial stimulus from Whitehall seemed to overlook the UK-wide nature of the RAE.

Happily, we have collectively found a way forward that, thus far, has maintained the UK-wide integrity of both the current process and plans for the future.

Secondly, it remains the case that funding of research, as distinct from assessment of quality, will continue to be done on different bases across the separate UK administrations. The key purpose of devolution, in higher education policy as in all else, is to allow policies to be tailored to local circumstances. Our approach to funding in Wales has, in the past, differed from those followed elsewhere in the UK, and we expect the same to be true this time also.

However, it is still too soon to comment in detail about what funding model we will use. We have committed to funding top-end research at levels that are competitive with those in other parts of the UK.

Our Council will consider the implications of the results at the end of January, and then move towards publishing a grant letter for 2009/10 in March. The challenge will be to balance honouring the commitment to ensuring competitive levels of funding for top-end research with deploying the remaining available funding to best effect.

Thirdly, as regards the results themselves, the overall volume of submissions from Wales fully reflects Waless weight in the UK HE system. The number of staff submitted was 12.5 per cent higher for the RAE 2008 than it was for the RAE 2001, which bespeaks significant growth in research capacity in that interval. Such growth reflects the efforts of institutions, both individually and collectively under our policy of Reconfiguration and Collaboration. This policy has launched a number of new joint research operations spanning variable groupings of institutions.

Given, moreover, that Wales was behind overall UK performance in 2001, and recognising just how dynamic is the research competition across the UK, and that the differences in the grading systems in the two exercises make precise comparisons difficult, we are also pleased with Waless relative aggregate distribution by grade in 2008.

While institutions are still absorbing their own results, it is premature to comment on the performance of individual universities. At a system-wide level, however, the results show that there is strength in research in all the universities that entered from Wales. The new grading structure, in avoiding the cliff-edge effects of 2001, has allowed this widespread distribution of strength to be demonstrated.

The results show considerable strength in more than one institution in a range of subjects, including Allied Health Professions, Computer Science and Informatics, Civil Engineering, Psychology, and Celtic Studies. Beyond this, individual institutions have shown strength in Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Town and Country Planning, Business and Management, Sociology, and Communications, Cultural and Media, together with Art and Design.

Contrary to some of the pre-RAE Cassandras, the results also show that quality has been recognised in applied research, practice-based research, and policy-oriented research. What matters is quality, not type, of research. The challenge now is to maintain this capacity to identify quality across all types of research as we move towards the REF, and to continue to dispel the myth that only narrowly focused basic research will be recognised.

As a small country, it is important to us in Wales to benchmark our performance against the rest of the UK, recognising that we operate within a UK market for staff, students, and funders of research. Nor do we underestimate the international significance of this benchmarking.

Now that we have the results, the task before us at HEFCW is to consider the funding implications. We shall do so with an eye both to rewarding success appropriately, and to building a research capacity for the future that will maintain UK competitiveness while also addressing the ambitions of the Welsh Assembly Government for strengthening the society, economy and culture of Wales.

Thanks are due to the army of panel members, and their secretariats, who have devoted such huge effort to this task. Our aim, in moving towards the REF, is to develop a system that will have the same authority as the current one, but with less need for such effort on the part of all concerned.

Meanwhile, we all need to absorb the current outcomes, and to resist the temptation, no doubt to be offered by league tablers, to reduce the results to simplistic rankings.
Philip Gummett is Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.