Art colleges lose research cash as ministers opt to protect science

Some of London's top art colleges are seething about cuts that mean that the University of the Arts London is losing £3m and the Royal College of Art £500,000 of research money next year. The cuts have come as a shock because the colleges actually did better in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), but this improvement was not reflected in cash.

"It's one thing to be hit when you've done badly, but it really annoys me because we've done well," says Sir Christopher Frayling, the rector of the Royal College of Art, which has educated artists such as Tracey Emin and Bridget Riley. "This is a real shock. Two-thirds of our students are studying design, and we thought the Government understood the importance of design to the economy."

The story is the same at the University of the Arts London, which includes Central Saint Martins, where Lucian Freud and Antony Gormley were educated, and Chelsea College of Art and Design, which trained David Hockney and Quentin Blake. "We submitted more staff to the RAE last time and did better in terms of quality," says Keith Bardon, pro-rector for research and enterprise. "Yet we are being cut. We firmly believe that good design is critical to the UK."

The funding allocations for universities next year show winners and losers as a result of a combination of factors, including performance in the latest RAE and numbers of students recruited. Venerable institutions such as Cambridge University and Imperial College London are having their research cut in real terms, while a lot of new universities such as Coventry and Lincoln have won the jackpot and are receiving big increases.

This has happened because of a change to the RAE funding methodology. Before last year, research was rated by university departments being awarded an average score, which concealed mediocre work in big departments but did not reward good research in small units in the new universities. This was deemed unfair. Now research is rated by departments being given a profile that uncovers what the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) calls "islands" of excellence, academics who are doing outstanding work, maybe in smaller departments in less famous places.

That means that the amount of research work funded as a result of the 2008 RAE increased. A good deal of this increase was in arts and humanities – for example, in media studies, which is popular with students. Thus, more media studies lecturers are recruited to teach the students; these academics produce research, and the quantity of research entered for the RAE goes up.

The increase in funding for arts and humanities research worried the older, established universities with big science departments, because it looked as though money would be diverted from big science to fund the increase in arts excellence. A lobbying campaign ensued. Politicians became concerned, and the upshot was that Hefce moved to protect funding in the Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) to ensure that the proportion of funding in these subjects next year was protected.

The effect has been to hit some universities that excel at humanities, arts and social sciences, such as the LSE and the art colleges, to maintain science funding. "We put that protection in so that we were still putting money into science and so that we were not being driven by the decisions of 18-year-olds," says David Sweeney, Hefce's director of research, innovation and skills.

Hefce maintains that high-quality work is still concentrated in the best institutions, and that the new methodology has simply led to a "slight thinning out" of research money. None of this is any comfort to the art colleges, because the result for them of the new methodology and the protection of science funding has been that the total amount of research money for art and design has shrunk. Frayling is in despair that the Royal College of Art, Britain's premier postgraduate institution for art and design, was cut, even though it had 40 per cent of staff being awarded a 4*, the top category.

The Government should treat design as a Stem subject, Frayling and Bardon say, because it is vital to the economy. "It's as useful, if not more so, than science," says Frayling.

Hefce rebutted the complaints, saying that it had increased research funding for art colleges by 20 per cent between 2002/03 and 2009/10. Moreover, it argued, it had given the Royal College of Art more teaching money and, through the Strategic Development Fund, £3.7m to support Design London, the partnership with Imperial College London.