UK universities produce higher-quality research for the money spent than anywhere else in the world. While US universities spend far more on research and get more citations, their British counterparts are considered to be better value for money.
Nick Hillman, director of think tank, the Higher Education Policy Institute, believes this success story is linked to the funding system which awards money to institutions that are judged to have a record of producing excellent research.
The funding council in England allocates £1.6bn for research to universities according to its evaluation of research performance. The other big spender, the Research Councils, distribute £3bn on the basis of bids submitted by academics.
The result is cutting-edge research that leads to such advances as new drugs; widgets that improve engines and better health advice. “Scientists are attracted to UK universities,” says Hillman. “You only have to look at the number of Nobel prizewinners.”
The most recent Nobel physics prize - for the discovery of graphene, the world’s thinnest material - was won by two Soviet-born scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, professors at Manchester University, while Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, and University College London – among 25 universities that serious research funding is spread between - top world league tables.
Universities that want government funding have to take part in the Research Excellence Framework, (formerly the Research Assessment Exercise), which REF evaluates performance in 36 subject areas. “You can make the case that UK research is the best in the world because for every £ spent the results are better than in the US,” says Hillman. “China and Singapore are catching up in science research, but UK research is broad as well as strong.”
However, John O’Leary, editor of the Times Good University Guide, says English gives UK universities an advantage: “World university rankings are based on the number of citations in academic journals. It helps that UK universities’ papers are published in English.”
While the bulk of research funding goes to medicine and science, the arts are not forgotten. Professor Sir Ian Diamond, vice-chancellor of Aberdeen University and a former chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, says university research in subjects such as art and fine art add to the quality of life: “It is vital to make scientific discoveries, but what kind of society would we have without research in the Arts. Research at UK universities is outstandingly good. It is hugely important in developing new ideas. It also means students are taught by world-class academics.”
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