How individual academics are rated for research and how their departments do determines how much money out of the pounds 3bn pot they will receive for research from the government funding councils for the next four years. Slipping a grade can mean the loss of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of pounds in precious research money. Rising a grade means more heavenly lucre and the knowledge that you are safe until the next assessment exercise.
"It can have a devastating effect on departments," says Mary Henkel, senior lecturer in government at Brunel University, who has been researching the subject with a Brunel colleague, Professor Maurice Kogan. "A poor performance diminishes an academic's standing in his or her own area, but it also affects the institution. It does seem to have long-term repercussions, apart from administering a shock."
This year record numbers of universities and colleges have entered the competition: 192 institutions, 20 more than in 1992 when the last research ratings were published. More academics' names have been put forward: 55,893, 11 per cent more than four years ago.
Most of the increase has come from the new universities, which have traditionally regarded teaching rather than research as their raison d'etre. Many former polytechnics are hoping to do better this year, and have put much effort and scarce money to that end.
Last time round the "old" universities, led by such lights as Cambridge, Oxford, London, Warwick, UMIST, Essex and Edinburgh, dominated the rankings. They are expected to do so again. But we may also see more new universities making gains - moving up the scale from a 2 to a 3 or even scaling the dizzy heights of a 5, the top grade. Four years ago the only former polytechnic to be awarded the highest grade was the University of Westminster, for its highly regarded media studies research centre.
Behind the exercise lies the desire of government to apportion research money according to quality. Why share scarce money around equally, goes the argument, when some research may not be worth funding? In the 1992 exercise, departments scoring a grade 1 received no research money. In the current exercise, funding details will be decided early next year.
As before, the assessment has been carried out by panels containing leading researchers, industrialists and civil servants. But this time there has been a stronger emphasis on the quality rather than the quantity of what academics produce. Researchers have been asked to submit their best four pieces of work, not to throw in everything they've done.
The funding formula which rewards institutions for quantity as well as quality of research staff means they can choose how to compete for funds: they can either enter large numbers of research staff, as De Montfort University, the former Leicester Polytechnic, did last time, in the hope that quantity will pay off and the quality will not dilute the result unduly; or they can enter small numbers of rated researchers in the hope of scoring high grades.
"We decided to put everyone in for it on the grounds that we would get more money that way," says Professor Mike Brown, De Montfort's pro-vice- chancellor. That strategy paid off. The university ended up with the largest amount of research funding of any new university.
Not only did De Montfort score with the funding council, its success enabled it to attract more money from outside sources. It had acquired that precious commodity, leverage. The university also, controversially, headhunted research stars from other institutions, offering them fatter salaries and better research budgets than they had enjoyed hitherto. Other universities did the same thing: a transfer market in higher education was born.
The new universities have borrowed some of the tactics honed by institutions such as Warwick, which has done spectacularly well in research over the years. De Montfort has established a senior research fellow scheme and hired recruits for 30 posts.
The universities of Westminster and Coventry, both of which have research fellowship schemes, have adopted similar strategies - all of which shows how much better research is being managed these days. Ian McNay, professor of educational management at Anglia Polytechnic University, has carried out a survey on the impact of the research assessment exercise and says: "The picture that emerges is of research becoming better organised." Dr Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster, confirms that: "It has sharpened up research," he says.
But there have been other, less desirable effects. One is that research is being accentuated at the expense of teaching. Some staff have been relieved of some teaching or released entirely to concentrate on research, according to Professor McNay. That, in turn, has led to lecturers being hired on teaching-only contracts to fill the gaps, or postgraduate students being paid to teach undergraduates.
Overall, Dr Michael Goldstein, vice-chancellor of Coventry University, gives the thumbs-down to the whole exercise. Pointing out that it takes years and huge sums of money to perform well in research, he says that the disparity between the research-rich old universities and the research- poor former polytechnics will become greater as the years go by. "Those who have done well in the past will have invested the money they get and jolly well ought to do well in the future," he says. "I think there's going to be more of a research elite. My own view is that selectivity has gone far enough, and if you take more money away from universities that are developing their research and put it into those who already have money, you will damage the former group and not have that much effect on the latter.
"If you took pounds 2m away from us and gave it to Oxford, you would not make much difference to them, but you would make a hell of a difference to us. That is not in the national interest."
Many other academics agree. Professor McNay argues that the case for dispersal of funds is strong. Concentration risks conservatism, he says. Established groups control the agenda and resist challenge. "Dispersal allows diversity," he says. "There are too many cases in history - even recent history - of innovative thinkers being low-rated by powerful peers, and yet being proven right over time"Reuse content