Turning the tables: research rankings scrutinised

Investigation into REF results casts doubt on ‘Golden Triangle’ claim

Cardiff University claims to have “broken into the golden triangle” of Britain’s leading research universities on the back of its results in the national Research Excellence Framework (REF) rankings.

The institution placed fifth overall in the UK in terms of quality and impact – and sixth in terms of the percentage of its research (40.5%) categorised as world-leading.

However, closer investigation has revealed that the precise scale of the university’s achievement is open to debate.

Cardiff University submitted units for just 738 of its 1,182 academic staff, meaning that only 62% of eligible research was sent for assessment.

This means that the institution submitted 292 fewer works than at the last assessment in 2008, coinciding with a rise from twenty-second to fifth in the overall rankings.

This is the lowest submission rate of any institution ranked in the top forty. It pales in comparison to the mean 87% submission rate achieved by the nine other institutions in the top ten UK universities. This top ten is based on the highest proportions of 4* (world-leading) rated research excluding institutions with fewer than three departments submitted.

The figure has provoked concerns that the sample submitted by Cardiff is not wholly representative of its research portfolio.

According to the Times Higher Education, Cardiff University falls from sixth place to 50th when the GPA is multiplied by the fraction of eligible staff submitted. This fraction is calculated by dividing the actual number of staff submitted by the number eligible to be submitted.

The contentious outcome of the £60m REF assessment led the academic community to issue a spate of self-congratulatory messages on social networks and in press releases this month.

87% of Cardiff University’s submitted research was categorised in the upper two tiers of star rated research – a figure bettered only by the London School of Economics, Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London.

This figure compares favourably with the UK average of 76% world class research.

In the fields of Engineering (97% world class), Psychology (92%), Media Studies (89%), Sociology (86%) and Modern Languages (84%), Cardiff placed in the top three institutions in the UK – results that form the basis of the “golden triangle” claim.

However, the University has failed to excel in key areas. Mathematical Sciences, Politics and Public Health are amongst the Cardiff modules to fall outside the top ten in the UK.

Furthermore, there have been suggestions that the emphasis on research rankings is actually detrimental to the academic experience.

“As a young researcher, I find the academic environment very intimidating. There are huge pressures to publish outstanding work and meet ref standards,” a student told Gair Rhydd.

“It’s putting me off staying in research, and I’m not even half way through my PhD.”

The pressure surrounding research rankings stems from the fact that they are used to determine government-allocated research funding for the next few years.

Yet despite its relatively strong performance, Cardiff does not feature in the top ten universities by projected research funding for 2015-18.

In response to the above claims, Vice-Chancellor Colin Riordan insisted that: “We decided from the outset that our goal was to be in the top 10 universities when measured on grade point average.”

He also said: “In keeping with our transparent approach, we have also been clear with our academics that anybody who is producing or is capable of producing high-quality research will be supported, irrespective of whether their work was included in REF 2014.

“REF stands for ‘research excellence framework’, not ‘research intensity framework’ or ‘research power framework’. The latter ranking favours larger institutions; the former relies on separate data external to the REF whose accuracy is in some cases open to question.”

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