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Reasons to be cheerful: RAE results

22 December 2008

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Eric Thomas, reflects on the results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

The RAE results were so complex this time that I have waited for the dust to settle and my thoughts to crystallise before offering an assessment of the outcome.

It is important to repeat that we perform research to pursue knowledge, to enliven our intellectual environment and to create outputs that make a difference to our discipline and the world – that’s our ambition. Your global research peer groups assess your excellence on the basis of your latest paper, book or monograph; on the posters and presentations by your PhD students and post-docs; and on your keynote address at the latest international meeting. They do not assess you on the outcome of a UK RAE that is essentially parochial and incomprehensible to them. The outcome of the RAE is an audit that informs funding; it is not an ambition.

RAE 2008 has verified that there is a very substantial critical mass of the highest quality research in the University of Bristol. It has shown that many academic areas are engaged in truly outstanding research and that virtually all the rest are producing a large volume of internationally recognised work. We should be proud of that and pleased that an external audit has verified our own internal assessments. As always, there were some tears of joy and others of sorrow although, as the days go by, further analysis shows that RAE panels behaved in different ways and we will need to be very careful in interpretation of both success and disappointment. Our press release identified some highlights, although not all, and I don’t intend to write a further list here. I simply want to say well done to you all – we are still right up there with the very best and that is only because of the quality of our academic staff and the people who support them in their endeavours.

The result has made almost everyone in the sector happy because there is high quality research identified in many places. However, in March 2009 the outcome has to be translated into funding and there simply is not enough money to continue to make everyone happy. Hard choices will have to be made about whether to spread funding all over the sector, which is likely to lead to a decrease in funding to universities like Bristol, or to continue to concentrate the money in a small number of large, research-intensive universities. As our quality has been sustained and improved, any decrease in funding will come from a change in the funding formula. Significant loss in funding will have major implications for our investment programme, so I will be ensuring our voice is heard supporting the importance of the large, research-intensive universities.

Finally, there are many people I would like to thank. Firstly, all our staff for continuing to produce such outstanding work. Next, Malcolm Anderson for taking the lead on this in such an exemplary fashion. Lesley Dinsdale and her team in RED were simply outstanding. Lesley would be the first to admit that the work of Directors of Research and Unit of Assessment Co-ordinators was vital, so thanks to them all. Deans and Heads of Department were important people not only for leading the submissions but also for sustaining the correct academic environment in which excellence could flourish. Finally, thanks to those Deans who finished their periods of office recently – Len Hall, David Muir Wood and Gareth Williams. They have been crucial to our success.

I will continue to keep you all updated but, for now, well done again and please have a restful and enjoyable Xmas and New Year. Nothing exotic for me, simply the family at home for Xmas lunch and the latest episode of Dr Who.
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