In 1993, Shane Warne, the great Australian spin bowler bowled to England’s Mike Gatting. The ball, heading towards the leg stump was played by Mike Gatting, and then, at the last moment, in a twist of pure genius from Warne, the ball turned sharply and took out Mike Gatting’s off-stump. You can see the ‘ball of the century’ on any number of video clips: the most remarkable spin bowling any one can recall.
But as spin, it pales in comparison with the efforts of university communications departments following the publication – at one minute past midnight on December 18th – of the results of the 2014 REF. You can read that UCL is the country’s leading research university, though you can also read, if you look at their own websites, that same claim being made by Imperial College and Oxford, whilst the THE will tell you that King’s has the best performance. A little further down the table, Cambridge, Durham, York, Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield, Exeter, Royal Holloway – all will tell you that their performances demonstrate their world-leading position. Birmingham’s vice-chancellor said that the results demonstrate that his university is one of a handful of universities that are truly world-leading, which suggests he has large hands. And further down there are different terminological contortions to make the claims for quality: Sheffield Hallam’s website declared itself as one of the country’s top five – that is, top five modern universities. It’s the job of communications departments to find the good news – so Essex University draws attention to the performance of its strongest department (politics), while Sussex, which appears to have slipped down the league table ignores the REF on its website and sticks with the more favourable THE league table rankings. There should be an award for the most creative presentation of REF results.
What’s to be made of this – and what’s the real story? The REF can be sliced in many different ways, with different indicators. There are no university-level judgements, so no university-level league table: universities’ performance is aggregated from individual subject performance. HEFCE itself publishes results, not league tables and different news outlets pick up different threads. The published grades can be presented in any number of ways: the proportion of 4* (world-leading) research, or the combined 4* and 3* (internationally excellent) work, the grade point average, the research power (any of those indicators multiplied by the size of the REF entry). It’s the job of press officers to find the indicators, and the subjects that present each university in the best light, and they have done sterling work. As one tweet put it: some universities have a genuinely world class press operation.
But there are big stories in the REF outcomes, and stories that matter for the long-term future of the United Kingdom. The REF is a device, not to drive league tables but to drive research funding. If current funding polices are maintained, the proportion of research funding taken by Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Imperial, LSE and King’s will rise as a result of this exercise from 21% to 26%. It makes the so-called ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and London even more dominant in the research economy. You can read this as good news: across the world, knowledge-intensive regions are driving innovation and prosperity. But you can regard it as bad news too: the increasing concentration of research expertise and facilities in the south of England sucks talent away from the midlands, the north, Scotland and Wales. For two decades in England, there has been a debate about research selectivity between institutions; the REF hammers home just how concentration is now operating regionally.
London Universities have done well, making-up ground on Oxbridge, and northern universities have lost ground. Because the key purpose of the REF is to drive funding, size increasingly matters. Volume is important. This means that the bigger winners of the REF will be the huge bio-medical research facilities, which are likely to gobble-up at least a third of the research funding pot. Smaller research groups – and smaller research universities – find it increasingly difficult. It’s striking that the top 24 places on the research power league table are occupied by the 24 Russell Group universities. The differentiation of the UK higher education sector is hardening.