'Super panels' let arts off easy
Hefce board member says science subjects were held to higher standards, writes Zoë Corbyn
The 15 "super panels" set up to oversee the 2008 research assessment exercise and ensure consistent judgments across the 67 subject areas did not do their job properly, a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's board said this week.
Malcolm Grant, who is also provost of University College London and chairman of the Russell Group of large research universities, criticised the "huge variation" in quality profiles between subjects.
He compared physics, where 25 per cent of the best-rated department's research was judged to be "world leading" (4*), with drama, dance and performing arts, where 60 per cent of the best department's research was of 4* standard. In communication, culture and media studies, one department saw 65 per cent of its research rated 4*.
This suggested that some science subjects, where the research elite are strong, were marked more stringently than some arts-based subjects, where teaching-led universities entered large volumes of staff, he said.
"I thought that this is what the super panels had been established to mitigate and moderate," he added.
Professor Grant's comments came after last week's funding allocations showed dramatic shifts in the cash going to different subjects, based on the volume of staff submitted and the quality of research.
Accounting and finance took the biggest hit, with a loss of 60.5 per cent of funding, after nearly 34 per cent fewer staff were entered. Many language subjects also suffered.
Buoyed by staff increases, newer subjects such as media, drama and sports-related studies saw funding increases of more than 50 per cent, along with some medical-related subjects and general engineering.
Media studies showed the biggest rise in staff numbers - up 239 per cent. It achieved the second-highest funding increase of all subjects at 156 per cent, just below nursing and midwifery, which came top with a 157.5 per cent increase.
Many science areas saw small gains: for example, physics is up 9.3 per cent. But with near-static or declining numbers of researchers entered, there were drops in funding for chemistry, dentistry, metallurgy, material engineering and chemical engineering.
This week, the president-elect of the 1994 Group was due to address MPs and leading figures in higher education on the Government's policy to identify priority subjects for future research funding based on the UK's economic needs.
Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, told Times Higher Education that culture, language, arts and social sciences would be just as important in meeting global challenges as science and technology subjects.
"We need to make sure that the funding for those areas that are going to be mission-critical for the UK are properly supported," he said.