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Schools hit by funding bombshell

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Two leading schools have been stripped of their top research rating amid calls to overhaul the system by which research funding is allocated. The Cambridge School of Architecture and the Bartlett at University College London have fallen from a top five rating to a four. The move will have financial implications for both institutions for the next five years. As well as seeing cuts in their research funding from central government, it will have a knock-on effect with foreign students choosing to take their fees elsewhere.

Head of school at Cambridge Alan Short said he was still assessing the impact, but that it would be a 'not insignificant amount'. He pledged that the shortfall would not affect teaching.

According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), Cambridge has seen its funding for the research category for the built environment drop by almost half from £468,676 in 2001-02 to £284,773 in 2002-03. UCL's built environment research funding fell from £1,171, 856 in 2001-02 to only £907,750 in 2002-03. Funding is based on the number of academics within the department as well as the research rating.

Heads of schools are set to debate the issue at the annual SCHOSA conference in Vienna this week. The issue promised to be a 'hot potato' said Professor Peter Tregenza from Sheffield University. Tregenza, who has responsibility for research within the school, said he was 'very relieved' that Sheffield had managed to keep its five rating. The impact of dropping a rating would have been the equivalent of losing two members of staff, he said.

Short agreed there was a 'big issue' around the allocation of research ratings and that there needed to be discussions about how ratings are assessed.

The five-yearly research assessment (RAE) exercise by the HEFCE, which was completed in December, pointed out a number of general concerns with research in the area of the built environment - the principal category under which most schools apply. It criticised the ageing profile of researchers and pointed to evidence of neglect towards technical subject areas.

But in a damning report published today, a House of Commons select committee has called for an overhaul of the system. It accuses the RAE of causing 'collatoral damage - damaging staff careers and distracting universities from their teaching, community and economic development roles'. It criticises the DfES for leaving the decision about research ratings to an unelected quango. And it calls on government to make a significant increase in research funding in its 2002 spending review.

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