Results of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2008 have placed the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University at 10th and 42nd respectively among Britain's research intensive universities.
The RAE, which rates the quality of research produced by universities through a process of peer review, will be used by Britain’s four higher education funding councils to allocate £1.5 billion of annual performance related funding to universities until 2013.
The exercise, which has previously drawn criticism for its subjective methodology and the emphasis it forces staff to place on research over teaching, has been radically reformed since it was last conducted in 2001.
The seven former ranking levels—the greatest being 5*—have been replaced by five grades ranging from 0*, or sub-standard, to 4*, or world-leading.
In addition, whereas research departments were previously assessed as a single entity—gaining a 5* ranking if anything more than 51% of research was said to be world leading—the 2008 report has given departments a more precise average score.
The RAE does not conclusively rank universities, and researchers will have to wait until March to hear the implications it will have on funding, but tables compiled by The Guardian and the Times Higher Education Supplement have suggested that there could be cause to celebrate in Edinburgh.
The University of Edinburgh is thought to have benefited from the new system, having climbed twelve places to 10th in The Guardian’s assessment and sitting comfortably at 7th in The Times. Heriot-Watt University has also consolidated its strong performance in 2001, retaining its position at 42 in The Guardian, just ten places below the University of Glasgow.
Heriot-Watt principal Anton Muscatelli expressed his happiness with the findings, saying: "We have more than doubled the percentage of Heriot-Watt research results which are at or above the national average, from 24 per cent to 50 per cent, which is a terrific result.
“We will use these positive results to build our research base and attract increased funding from research councils and industry, and to continue to grow our research student numbers.”
Star performers at the University of Edinburgh included the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, which ranked highest in the UK for research in hospital and laboratory based clinical subjects.
English Literature was another department applauded by university principal Professor Timothy O’Shea, for attaining a place in the top three in the UK, with 40 per cent of its research rated as 4*.
Some controversy has surrounded this year’s results, which have not included precise information on the numbers of staff submitted by each institution for assessment, with some accusations that under-performing staff members have been swept under the carpet.
Both The Times and The Guardian have attempted to estimate the proportion of staff hidden from assessors in compiling their tables but this has created some wildly varying results lower down the rankings.
The Guardian has given Napier and Queen Margaret universities some cause for concern in this year’s results, ranked at 102nd and 114th respectively out of a total of 116.
However, The Times places the two institutions at 72nd and 64th.
A spokesperson for Napier University told The Journal: “The 102 out of 116 ranking for Napier University found in The Guardian was taken from one particular publication using a single metric.
"Funding, however, is likely to be based on a combination of quality and the number of staff submitted, and on this basis we are confident that our relative position has improved significantly, as indicated by the 72nd position recorded in the table produced by the University of Lancaster and published by Times Higher Education.
“We therefore look forward to much improved funding based on a significantly improved performance from the previous exercise in 2001.”