The north-east of England has gained a “northern research powerhouse” to rival anything outside London, according to the vice-chancellor of the University of Northumbria after his institution rocketed up national research rankings.
Andrew Wathey took over at the Newcastle university in 2008 when it was 81st for research output, and has now seen it vault into 28th place in the UK, according to results of the research excellence framework (Ref) published this month.
The two-year-long exercise, which reviewed and rated the output of 76,000 academics across the UK, is vital for dividing up £2bn a year in government research grants, and could mean millions more for high-flyers such as Northumbria.
Wathey said his institution’s performance in the Ref was “a great testament to what colleagues have achieved” and offered big rewards for the region as a whole. “There are important consequences for the north-east here. This in effect gives Newcastle a second research-intensive university. And if you add Durham, it makes the biggest concentration of researchers in any city area outside London,” Wathey said.
With Newcastle University in 17th place and Durham 21st out of the 157 UK institutions that took part in the Ref, the trio combined have nearly 3,500 active research staff – more than the likes of Cambridge or Oxford.
For the north-east’s local authorities, universities play a vital role, Wathey said. “In the north-east there aren’t many FTSE-100 companies, so for local authorities universities are really the only other corporations with which they can work on place-shaping.
“Levelling up is not a new idea but this plays into that, this is how you do regional development. And the local authorities in the north-east have got a very enlightened view towards universities and research, which is that it will drive future economic growth in the region.”
Wathey said there was no magic behind Northumbria’s rise, other than picking a strategy that firmly emphasised research and sticking to it. In practical terms, Wathey said, that meant making sure the university’s vacancies were filled with academics “who are both inspirational teachers and excellent researchers”, as well as reducing bureaucracy and refocusing the institution. “We worked hard on culture and leadership. And we recognised the workload of research,” Wathey said.
Because the Ref is based on individuals’ research output, ambitious institutions have been eager to appoint staff with established “Ref-able” credentials. But Wathey said Northumbria had been able to attract talented academics at the start of their careers, which has paid dividends.
“We created posts which we called vice-chancellor’s research fellows. Unlike quite a lot of the postdoc positions around the sector, these have had a guaranteed follow-on into lecturer posts. And they proved to be very popular, with some of our stars of today joining us early on in those posts.”
The figures from the latest Ref show how successful that strategy has been: in the results of the 2008 exercise, Northumbria had just 56 staff judged to be producing world-leading or internationally excellent research. By 2014’s Ref that had risen to 207, and the total this year has swelled to 840, in subjects as diverse as English and history and engineering.
The Ref success of Northumbria, and others such as Manchester Metropolitan, suggest that for the first time modern universities are crossing “the clear blue water”, in Wathey’s phrase, that has previously separated the newer institutions from their more established counterparts.
Under the government’s current method of allocating research funding – based on the 2014 Ref – the Russell Group of universities would lose around £44m a year. But the allocations based on the 2021 Ref have yet to be set – and the established research universities are likely to argue that they shouldn’t lose out.
Sarah Richardson, the editor of Ricerca Professional News, which tracks funding, said its Ref analysis found that the “golden triangle” formed by the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London had seen a fall in its share of highly rated research.
“I think this does suggest that while the golden triangle is clearly dominant in research, the gap with the rest of the country might be slightly narrower than previously thought. That’s really important when you think about levelling up, the government’s agenda is to increase the spread of research across around the country. So there’s lots of concern in the sector about how that might impact the golden triangle,” Richardson said.
For Wathey, the amount of income directly generated is less important than the potential boost in public perception of universities such as Northumbria. “The reputational gain is more important than money. The money is nice but there are relatively fewer ways in which you can build reputational gain. And this is a really key one.”