Oxford falls to third in academic research table

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The Independent Online

Oxford University has dropped to third place in the most important university league table, published today, behind not only Cambridge but also Imperial College, London.

The five-yearly assessment of research performance was especially embarrassing for the university's history department, home to such eminent figures as A J P Taylor and Lord Dacre (Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper). Its grading of five was beaten by Oxford Brookes University, the former polytechnic whose history faculty was given a superior five-star ranking.

Cambridge finished top of the league with the highest number of university departments, 30, recording a five-star ranking, the highest accolade that can be awarded.

Professor Sir Alec Broers, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, said the results were a tribute to the "outstanding intellectual achievement of our researchers". However, he warned that what he termed the "chronic underfunding of universities" needed to be addressed if the national improvement in research standards was to be improved.

His warning was echoed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), which graded the universities. It said a £200m shortfall was threatening funding for research of international standing in many of the country's seats of learning.

The research assessment, which determines how £1bn of government grants will be spent, shows a substantial increase in the number of university research departments rated as being of top international class.

The figures reveal a record 999 submissions from the universities have been given five or five-star ratings – compared with only 573 in 1996, and almost triple the number receiving the rating in 1992.

The percentage of staff receiving five or five-star ratings has also soared from 23 per cent in 1992 to 55 per cent today.

Sir Howard Newby, the chief executive of Hefce, admitted that the rise in performance meant the council could not continue to go on funding all top-quality research at the same level.

"We believe today's results are an excellent outcome and reflect enormous credit on the hard work that staff have put in. It has been so good that we don't have the resources to fund it, though," he said.

In the past all those departments whose work rated a 3B ranking or above received grants. This time even those with a four ranking – meaning they have shown evidence of international excellence – may be denied financial help.

The funding shortfall provoked an outcry from university lecturers last night.

Sally Hunt, the assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "The Government cannot expect ongoing improvements in quality without providing more resources."

The board of Hefce will meet today to discuss what action to take and will have to decide whether to put the entire allocation on hold until after the comprehensive spending review by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, next summer or change the formula for grants, which could mean those with 3B and four rankings would not receive help.

Today's results also show a closing of the gap between the traditional universities and the "new" universities, the former polytechnics. The number of former polytechnic departments given a four ranking has quadrupled since 1996 – going up from 45 to 189. Three former polytechnics – Manchester Metropolitan and Liverpool John Moores, as well as Oxford Brookes – gained five-star rankings for the first time.

Oxford Brookes was celebrating the announcement yesterday that its history department had ranked higher than that of its more illustrious neighbour. Professor John Glasson, the pro Vice-Chancellor responsible for research at the university, said: "This is a remarkable achievement for the university."

Professor Michael Prestwich, from Durham University, who headed the history panel that made the decision, pointed out that whereas Oxford Brookes had submitted 12 staff for ranking Oxford University had submitted 130.

He said Oxford Brookes also benefited because its history department was very specialised – with a concentration on the history of medicine, which brought with it a high level of research funding.

Oxford University said yesterday that the results still showed it had a larger number of academic staff working in world-class departments than any other university.

Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, said the university had been criticised for "playing the game" and putting up fewer of its academics for assessment when it had come top in 1996. He added: "It is also an advantage to be a science outfit." That attracted large amounts of research funding to an institution.

The "new" universities are also worried they may have to bear the brunt of the financial squeeze as their departments, while showing improvements, have many 3B and four ratings, which are now vulnerable. Some are understood to be considering legal action if they do not receive funding.