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An interview with University of Warwick Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor Tim Jones

Following the release of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) results, Tim Jones, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research (Science and Medicine), Knowledge Transfer and Business Engagement at the University of Warwick, discusses the future of research in Higher Education.

The new REF scores have just been released with some impressive results for Warwick. What do the results mean for us?

It means that we’re one of the best research institutions in the UK. The results which came out in December revealed that 87% of our research was ranked “world-leading” or “internationally excellent”. The amount of 4* research in this exercise went up to 37% from 21% in the last assessment exercise in 2008. And as an overall score, the university was ranked 7th in the UK for the quality of research based on multi-faculty institutions.

Why is the REF so important?

The REF is hugely important, firstly, financially because it’s the way the funding council HEFCE allocates a significant sum of money, but it’s also important for the reputation of institutions. It’s held every six years, it reflects the really high quality of the research that goes on across the institution overall, and of course that result stays with us for the next six years going forward. There’s a financial incentive to do well, but equally important is the reputation nationally and internationally.

How does the process work?

Well, the REF assesses every element of research that goes on within departments and universities. It covers the publications that researchers generate. It covers the impact each piece of research has, which is the new element of the exercise this time, through a series of impact case studies. It also reflects the environment of a department, and how it undertakes research, its strategy, how it supports research and so forth. And those three elements are combined to give you an overall score - the GPA or Grade Point Average as it’s known. There are critics of the assessment, but it’s a detailed, rigorous exercise that takes a year of hard work. Each unit of assessment is discussed by a panel which meets on many occasions to make the assessments and to provide the overall ranking. It’s an important benchmark, despite its faults, that’s well recognised throughout the world.

What were the Warwick success stories of the 2014 REF?

Fourteen academic departments were ranked in the Top 10 and seven in the Top 5. Our Department of English and Comparative Studies was ranked first for research in the UK. Computer Science was ranked second, coming first in research outputs and second in impact. 4 departments were ranked first for the quality of their publications, which I think is a real measure of quality, the thing that will be archived and remembered for many years to come. What’s really important to highlight, is that we submitted 84% of our staff to the REF, so it’s not just the quality, but the overall breadth of quality that is really important. So, an outstanding set of results.

What is it about Warwick that encourages these great results?

Warwick has a strategy that focusses unequivocally on excellence and research is very much at the heart of that strategy. It drives what we do. Even the teaching is research-led teaching. We appoint and develop the very best researchers and that excellence passes through into the REF assessments and the quality assessment that we get at the end.

William Cullerne Bown of Research Fortnight spoke to the BBC recently, saying, “Outside the elite in the South East, almost all the other leading universities in England now face relentless decline." Why is Warwick not representative of this decline?

I think there is no doubt that there has been a concentration of research quality and power within the south east, you can see that not just in REF, but in concentration of research funding. However, it is interesting to see why Warwick is different. It very much comes back to our ethos, of constantly pushing the message of excellence. We don’t appoint people unless they really are the best and that excellence goes across all disciplines. We focus on what we’re good at. We do a lot, but not everything and we have an environment which really encourages innovative and high quality research and teaching. We nurture researchers whether they’re early careers or our leading professors. I think the culture within the Warwick is very consistent, and promotes high quality work.

What do you see as the future of academic research?

The future of research is massively important, both in terms of the pure research and the impact it has. The exercise has been interesting and very insightful in that we now have an archive of Warwick case studies that demonstrate how impactful the research of our academics is, across all areas. And that covers economic impact, cultural impact and the impact on policy and public engagement. That message will resonate very strongly with governments and funders of research going forward. Of course, it also reinforces the importance of universities. The world-leading quality of the research, not just at Warwick, but of course, nationally, will continue and will be crucially important for us all.