Shaping our future: The University of Birmingham’s challenge to attain research excellence

By Adam Tickell, University of Birmingham


The University of Birmingham was founded in 1900 as the UK’s first civic university. During its history, it has produced eight Nobel Laureates for contributions as diverse as the discovery of Vitamin C to counteracting climate change. However, during the past 15 years or so, the university progressively slipped according to the UK’s research evaluation measures.  As one of the major universities in the country, it was imperative for the university to improve its performance. Thus, under the leadership of a new Vice Chancellor, Professor David Eastwood, the university went through an ambitious transformation to achieve its goal of becoming a leading global university.

Copyright University of Birmingham 2013

The competitive research funding landscape of the UK

Research in the UK is recognized for its international excellence and having the best return on public investment in the world.[1] Much of this success rests upon the highly competitive allocation processes for research funding.

The path to research funding and the role of research evaluation

Public funding for research in the UK comes through two major routes:

Block grant funding which is distributed by the government 

Competitive grants from Research Councils, charities, the European Union and governmental departments for specific research projects and programs for which individual academics apply

The results of an institution’s research evaluations are critical to successful outcomes in both of these funding routes.

The UK conducts a Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in order to rate universities’ submissions into five quality levels from unclassified (0*) to world-leading (4*), and uses the quality profiles as the basis for awarding research funding. RAEs took place in 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008, and the evaluation always involved elements of peer review, faculty activity data and research metrics. The preparations for the RAEs imposed a heavy administrative burden on UK universities. Therefore in 2006, the government announced plans to develop and implement a new framework in consultation with the research sector after the 2008 assessment. 

The new Research Excellence Framework (REF) is also based upon peer evaluation, and in some disciplines such as engineering, the sub-panels will use citation metrics supported by Scopus. The REF, similar to the RAE, also assesses the research environment , but with a significant difference in that it now judges on the contribution of the universities to the broader UK society in terms of economic growth, quality of life of people in the UK and internationally, and policy-making.

UK universities place great importance on the REF because it makes their research performance very visible not only in the UK, but also around the world. The REF affects funding allocation, academic recruitment and industrial partnerships, as well as the university’s position in league tables.

One result of the competitive nature of funding is that there is a strong hierarchy of support: the Russell Group, comprising the 24 leading UK universities, wins 70 percent of all UK funding. Even within that group, 35 percent of this research funding goes to the five major universities, which do not yet include the University of Birmingham.

Despite its competitive funding landscape, the UK government also seeks to ensure that universities in the same region or county collaborate to share expensive equipment such as microscopes, MRI machines and large engineering facilities. As a result, the UK has many consortia where these collaborations also encompass initiatives such as training programs for PhD students.

The challenge for the University of Birmingham

Over the last 15 to 20 years, the research quality of the University of Birmingham has seen some decline compared to our peers in the Russell Group. The university’s ranking in RAE 2008 dropped, and our share of grant income fell progressively among British universities.

In 2010, a new Vice Chancellor, Professor David Eastwood, was appointed with a mission to transform the University of Birmingham and he set a clear goal to reverse the decline. The first thing he did was to set forth a new strategic framework, “Shaping our future,” which included five key goals with the aim of ensuring that Birmingham is a leading global university and the “destination of choice” for students, researchers and industrial collaborators.  A new executive team was established to drive these changes, and a significant investment from our financial reserves was made to rebuild the university for the future.

The university embarked on a series of strategic research initiatives: 

Significant investment in intellectual capacity

The university appointed a large number of new academics by investing over 50 million GBP in new interdisciplinary initiatives such as robotics, human computer interaction and more.

Under a new flagship program, “Birmingham fellowships,” 65 of the brightest and best academics were awarded a five-year research position exempted from teaching, with a promise of a permanent post at the end of the program.

Initiatives to promote interdisciplinary studies and collaboration 

The Institute of Advanced Studies was established to promote interdisciplinary interaction across the breadth of the university to address major cross-cutting themes and to promote collaboration with world leading scholars.

A whole new series of national and international collaborations were developed including alliances with University of Nottingham in England; the state funding agency of Sao Paulo in Brazil; China, particularly in and around Guanzhou; and the University of Illinois and Urbana-Champaign in the US.

The university’s new strategy for the REF

In addition to making these investments, it was also important to ensure our submission to the REF was as tactically strong as possible.  As universities will only receive funding for work judged to be of 3* or 4* quality, we set a high threshold for submission.  A rigorous management process was put in place to ensure the best outcomes, along with support and training to the staff leading the process.

Through these activities, the university’s community of 1,600 academics (out of a total staff of approximately 6,000) renewed its commitment that excellence matters. This has already had a significant impact: most notably, Birmingham academics are publishing in higher impact journals now than they were three years ago and our papers are being cited more frequently.

The introduction of a Current Research Information System (CRIS)

The strong policy of excellence for submission to the REF was a very important part of the process, but to implement real change, the university needed to look beyond an exercise determined by the government. 

The executive team and its independent governing council receive a quarterly report to track and monitor progress of the university’s transformation in research. In addition, each academic school is reviewed every four years to cover all aspects of what they do in both research and education.

Pulling together university-wide data into a comprehensive report is not an easy task. To accomplish this, the university introduced Elsevier’s Pure as the research information system to manage and assess institutional activities.  Pure will be used to upload our entire submission to the REF in November 2013 and will, in 2014, be fully integrated with the university’s website and researcher repository.  One major advantage for staff is that most of their papers will be identified automatically within Scopus and all other research will only need to be entered once for all university activities.  Using Pure, up-to-date profiles of each academic are accessible at any time, providing a valuable source of information to help prepare for the REF. University executives can pull information from the system and easily measure progress toward their key performance targets.

Achievement to date and what supported our success

The University of Birmingham is still in the very early days of this transformation, but results of the initiatives have been promising thus far. In 2011–2012, research grant income grew by 50 percent, which represented both the highest growth rate and largest amount the university had ever seen, and the university was positioned 9th highest for research grants in the UK. The university now attracts world class academics and excels in retaining top researchers. Importantly, the university attracts more funding from industry; for example, in 2012 Rolls-Royce and the government announced a 40 million GBP investment to build a new manufacturing technology center at the university.  The university is also rising in national and international league tables, notably from 77th to 62nd in the QS World Rankings 2013, and was awarded the Times University of the Year Award 2013–14.

Three major learnings from the university’s initial success include:

1. Understanding research performance is crucial in order to make a change, and it is equally important to be honest about it with both the public and the university community.

2. It’s important to be forthright with researchers if they are not performing at an expected level. Tackling underperformance is possible, but it takes a long time and requires sustained efforts.

3. It’s essential to make positive investments and implement initiatives to maintain morale as well as to reinvest in the genuine areas of strength and excellence within the institution.

The approach is working well. The University of Birmingham’s academics and students increasingly feel that the university is becoming a brand name denoting excellence — to the benefit of the university’s reputation and their own as scholars.

1 International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base – 2013 (October 2013). A report prepared by Elsevier for the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

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