2009 The Health of Research in the Northern Ireland Universities - Why It Matters

 Professor Gerry McKenna


The first half of 2009 has seen an upsurge in media coverage of research performance in Northern Ireland’s two universities. This has been generated mostly by the universities themselves and reported largely verbatim in the regional press. First, there were the claims, partly justified, of outstanding performance in the periodic national Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). This was followed by the announcement by Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) that it was shedding over 100 academic posts in order to reinvest in ‘new blood’ to enhance future research performance. There has been little local external analysis of the research standing of QUB and the University of Ulster (UU), mainly because interpretation of performance is difficult for those not fully versed in the topic. The question arises: why is so much emphasis placed on research performance in determining a university’s national and international reputation, and is this important in the delivery of the other equally important part of its mission, namely teaching? Also, how healthy is research in the Northern Ireland universities and what has influenced its development in recent years?

 Over the past 25 years there has been a greater public awareness of universities’ role in carrying out most of the basic research undertaken throughout the world. University research develops unique theories, hypotheses and new thinking across the arts, science, engineering and social sciences. This contributes greatly to the evolution of a more cultured and civilised society and, in the more vocational areas such as medicine and engineering, to knowledge-based practical and professional competence. It also yields new techniques, devices, treatments and other products of major economic and social benefit.

There were for many years in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, a number of governmental bodies, foundations and charities which provided research funding support, mostly competitively, to universities. Inevitably the bulk of this funding went to a relatively small number of institutions which had strong reputations and were, through philanthropy and other historical benefaction, already extremely well-founded. This inevitably added to the reputations of the few such that they attracted the best academic staff and students, and provided the best facilities. An informal, but nonetheless nationally and internationally recognised, hierarchy became established. Despite this obvious inequality, all UK universities were expected to carry out research and received, as part of their overall annual ‘block grant’, a sum based on institutional size (student numbers) for this purpose. This loose arrangement with little government interference continued for decades, through and beyond the major expansion in the number of universities following the Robbins Report in the early 1960s.

By the 1970s things were beginning to change. Much high technology economic development was beginning to emerge from the transfer of knowledge generated in university research laboratories, particularly in the United States. There was a growing recognition that western economies could not compete with low wage developing countries in producing low technology products. Governments recognised that strong research universities could be powerhouses for economic development through knowledge transfer, based on their research and their supplying the graduates and researchers needed to support the ‘technology revolution’. High technology inward investment was strongly influenced by the regional research base. This inevitably meant increased support for government spending on university research but with a concurrent increased interest in measuring research performance. This led to the establishment of the RAE; measuring research performance by quality and volume in every department in every UK university. The first full RAE that used now generally accepted performance indicators took place in 1989. This was followed by similar exercises using broadly similar methodologies in 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008. Performance was measured retrospectively over the period from one RAE to the next, and money followed performance.

Parallel with the RAE a similar exercise was established to measure teaching quality across the UK higher education system. Whilst this assessment never achieved the ‘Gold Standard’ recognition internationally of the RAE, it did reveal one surprising and unwelcome outcome for those who argued that universities were placing too high a priority on research at the expense of teaching and learning; teaching quality was found to be strongly correlated to research quality! This was not at all surprising to those academic leaders with past experience of the range of synergies that exist between university teaching and research.

 Excellence in research requires unique abilities of analysis and creativity, together with exceptional commitment and dedication. The development of innovative and exciting taught programmes and teaching methodologies requires similar qualities. It is hardly surprising that both will be found in the same department and frequently in the same person. Such departments will consequently have better facilities, be more self-confident, and be better able to attract high calibre academic staff. Their research performance will involve more interaction with other outstanding research centres across the world and their staff will be involved in external interactions with funders, publishers, charitable organisations, business leaders, venture capitalists and a much wider range of interchange than that afforded to the weaker or non-researching academics in a ‘teaching-only’ department. All of this often translates into more interesting teaching and progressive curriculum development, as well as offering greater opportunities for students.

The RAE brought other unforeseen outcomes. It exploded a number of myths of international research excellence perpetuated both within and without universities which proved to be unfounded. Based on rigorous peer review, it abolished ‘hiding places’ which were much more prevalent in older universities than in relatively new institutions with little history of research.

Both Northern Ireland universities participated in the 1989 RAE but with the understanding that it would have no funding consequences; in other words the institutions would be protected from the financial penalties of relatively poor performance. This was particularly important for UU which had been established in 1984 as a result of a merger between the New University of Ulster (NUU) and the Ulster Polytechnic. Neither NUU nor the Polytechnic had significant strengths in research and the new management of UU showed limited interest in their development. Queen’s at that time had a significant research profile across a wide range of disciplines though, despite local perceptions, it was nearer the middle than the top of any UK league table for research.

The next RAE, in 1992, was a more significant event nationally in that it was the first occasion when all block grant funding for research was subsequently distributed on the basis of RAE performance. A direct read-across of the funding model used in England would have reduced QUB’s block grant research funding significantly and almost destroyed that of UU. In order to protect Northern Ireland’s research base, it was decided to allocate the funds, which would have been lost formulaically using the English model, into a separate research pool called NIDevR. This was to be administered by the newly created NI Higher Education Funding Council (NIHEC) and was to be allocated selectively to each university to support areas of existing or potential strength with a view to improving future RAE performance. Attention was also given to the importance of research excellence in supporting the economic, social and cultural development of Northern Ireland. The simple logic underpinning the NIDevR funding initiative was based on the reasonable premise that the most talented researchers in Northern Irelandshould be resourced adequately and appropriately in order to compete with their international counterparts.

In addition to protecting the research base in Northern Ireland’s universities, NIDevR had other beneficial effects. It required, for the first time, the universities to develop and articulate research strategies and to define priorities. In the case of UU it also involved, through necessity, the passing of responsibility for the formulation of research policy and practice to a new generation of young and previously successful researchers with the self confidence and ability to chart the university into new waters. It was accepted by NIHEC that progress would be slow; the Council recognised that even with judicious investment, improvements in research performance take a number of years to bear fruit. Nonetheless the new research policy formulators within UU embraced research selectivity with zeal. Ironically, the then senior managers within UU lobbied covertly, but unsuccessfully, for its allocation of NIDevR funds to be used for non research purposes.

The beneficial effects of NIDevR were, however, quite dramatic, particularly for UU. In the next (1996) RAE, following NIDevR’s introduction, UU obtained the highest, 5*, rating possible in Biomedical Sciences (corresponding to outstanding international excellence). QUB also obtained one 5* rating, in Mechanical, Aeronautical and Manufacturing Engineering. While QUB had greater strength in depth, UU showed how, through selectivity and focussed research management, it was possible to achieve international excellence from an almost zero base. The 2001 RAE maintained the pattern. QUB retained its advantage over UU in terms of breadth and volume, but UU received two 5* ratings (in Biomedical Sciences and Celtic Studies) to QUB’s one (again in Mechanical, Aeronautical and Manufacturing Engineering). Despite the improved performance of both universities, it was agreed that the funding methodology, while rigorously maintaining selectivity, should continue to be adjusted to the particular circumstances of Northern Irelandrather than copying strictly the English model. It was obvious to the universities and to Government that a funding model designed for over 100 institutions, and designed to accommodate extremes of research quality and volume, was unlikely to be the most suitable for enhancing and maintaining performance in a two-university system.

 At this time, and uniquely in the history of higher education inNorthern Ireland, the two Vice Chancellors shared a relatively common vision and a willingness to cooperate in the overall interests of the Province. This included a belief in the importance of maintaining a strong research base in the universities. This led to joint successful lobbying for what became The Northern Ireland Science Park. It also resulted in government funding for research being substantially increased. Further joint approaches led to Atlantic Philanthropies agreeing to provide an initial £20 million to support research infrastructure in selected areas provided this was matched by additional government funding. The £40 million Support Programme for University Research (SPUR) was launched in 2002 and was followed by a similar, but larger, £60 million SPUR II programme (also supported by Atlantic Philanthropies) the following year. SPUR funding was competitive and was allocated on the basis of each university’s strategic research plans and the viability of their proposals and prospects for attaining international excellence in selected research areas. The funding was distributed approximately 3:2 in favour of QUB and supported major infrastructural developments in staffing and facilities in selected areas at both universities. The SPUR funds therefore had the effect of reinforcing the research selectivity inNorthern Ireland already in place in response to successive RAEs and NIDevR funding. Meanwhile both universities had significantly ratcheted up the development rate of new start-up companies and other business support activities through their respective knowledge transfer companies, QUBIS and UUTECH. These activities were largely dependent on the strength of the universities’ research base in science and engineering.

Investment in research through strategic development planning, selectivity, and focussed research support requires considerable courage and self-confidence on the part of senior management. Selectivity, by its very nature, excludes the lesser performers; it transfers funds strategically from weak and unpromising areas to those of actual or potential strength. It is hardly likely to receive enthusiastic endorsement from the relevant trades unions or indecisive managers. Returns from research investment are inevitably slow with normal lag times of at least 5 years. It is also worth noting that selectivity may be easier to implement within a university with little research history than one in which all subject areas claim international reputations irrespective of the veracity of such claims. In the former case many staff will be relieved to escape the burden of research; in the latter, publicly identified exclusion from active research may be regarded as a badge of shame. In either case the subject choices and support mechanisms are crucial and must be undertaken with rigorous objectivity.

It is worth reflecting on the impact of selectivity on university research quality in Northern Ireland. Whilst some policy and funding initiatives eg. NIDevR had measurable positive outcomes in the 2001 RAE, the major increases in selective funding (SPUR I and II) and increased recurrent funding only took place in 2002 and 2003. The results of the 2008 RAE, which measured research performance over the period 2000-2007 provide a more mature evidence base. Both universities claimed strong performances, however it is worth pointing out that, in terms of average scores, QUB finished in 39th position and UU 45th within the overall UK university pecking order. Given their relative research histories, this was a more satisfactory outcome for UU than for QUB. Examination of results by subject is revealing: QUB had 6 subjects in the top 10 as compared to UU’s 4. However, 3 of UU’s subjects (Biomedical Sciences, Nursing and Celtic Studies) were in the top 3 while QUB had one subject (Pharmacy) in the top 5. In terms of staff numbers, UU had 98 staff in subjects ranked in the top 5 as compared to 23 for QUB. This would appear to reflect a tighter regime of selectivity operating within UU during most of the review period. Certainly UU appeared to derive more leverage from the SPUR initiative with two major beneficiaries (Biomedical Sciences and Celtic Studies) performing outstandingly. It seems unlikely that the two Northern Ireland universities would have obtained a combined total of 10 top 10 subject areas without the transfusion of the various selective funding initiatives. By any objective standard, the current quality of research undertaken in the Northern Ireland universities is of a different and higher order than that of 20 years ago.

Research excellence represents a race without a finishing line. Every place gained has to be maintained and, if possible, improved upon. Each university strives for international excellence against ever-increasing competition. Based on the latest RAE results, Northern Ireland has two middle ranking research universities; to claim loftier positions is at variance with the facts! Neither has major research strengths across the board but each has a number of areas of undoubted international excellence. This has been achieved by selective funding policies applied to varying degrees.

The choices facing the two universities and government, as in the past, are between striving for greater research accomplishments and associated reputational gains, or drifting down the UK rankings with a probable corresponding decline in course innovation and curriculum design. The former choice requires tough but unbiased analysis and renewed selectivity based on performance. The latter option may temporarily placate a vociferous if unproductive lobby arguing for equal shares of misery for all. It will also involve a rapid loss of institutional reputation, haemorrhaging of the most talented academic staff, and failure to recruit such staff in the future. As with most competitive endeavours, the status quo is never an option. The lesson of the past 15 or more years is that judicious research selectivity can yield massive improvements in performance. It remains the only way forward if Northern Ireland is to retain a position of respectability within the global university community. It will also be crucial in enabling the Province to compete in the global high technology economy in the years and decades ahead.

Original version of an article published in Fortnight Magazine, Winter 2009


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