Seven of Wales’ eight universities have slipped down a research league table based on rigorous assessments of all 129 higher education institutions in the UK – with the eighth in the same position as before.

Three Welsh universities have seen big drops, with Cardiff University dropping from sixth position to 22nd, Swansea from 26th to 48th and Cardiff Metropolitan from 41st to 81st. The findings are based on the UK’s system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The respected Times Higher Education magazine converts the results into an overall league table.

  • Cardiff University 22nd (down from 6th)
  • Bangor 42nd (unchanged)
  • Swansea 46th (down from 26th)
  • Aberystwyth 65th (down from 58th)
  • Cardiff Metropolitan 81st (down from 41st)
  • The University of South Wales 101st (down from 93rd)
  • Trinity St David’s 112th (down from 97th)
  • Glyndwr 123rd (down from 112th)

The REF is a process of expert review, carried out by expert panels for each of the 34 subject-based units of assessment, under the guidance of four main panels. Expert panels are made up of senior academics, international members, and research users.

For each submission, three distinct elements are assessed: the quality of outputs – for example publications, performances, and exhibitions – their impact beyond academia, and the environment that supports research.

The league table for 2021 has been published this month, together with comparative figures from the last REF assessment in 2014. Two of the Welsh universities with the biggest drops – Cardiff and Cardiff Metropolitan – said comparisons with the 2014 were difficult because there had been changes in the assessment process.

Nevertheless, the disappointing rankings follow concerns expressed weeks ago by Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University about a relative drop in university research funding in Wales as compared with England and Scotland.

A spokesman for Cardiff University said: “Cardiff’s Grade Point Averages have increased since REF 2014, in most areas. The overall quality of our research has improved, with 90% of what we submitted as world-leading or internationally excellent.

“This gain was less than the sector as Cardiff submitted less staff in REF 2014 and doubled the size of its submission in REF2021. We have gone up four places in research power from REF2014, which was a key goal to demonstrate both increases in quality and scale

“We remain the largest university in Wales, with 47% of the submitted staff in Wales, 58% of the 4* market share, and 51% of the 3* and 4* market share. Overall, we’ve seen a 5% increase in our proportion of 4* research, as well as a growth in our market of 4* research within Wales of 6% since REF 2014.”

A spokeswoman for Swansea University said: “We are obviously disappointed to fall in the Times Higher REF rankings, but our REF results show that Swansea has still improved the overall quality of our research from the 2014 exercise.

“We also achieved this improvement in quality while at the same time submitting 56% (+200) more research staff. Therefore, our volume and quality has improved. In the 2021 assessment, 86% of the university’s overall research was rated as 4*, (world-leading) or 3* (internationally excellent) – up from 80% in the previous REF exercise in 2014.

“The university continues to be recognised for the impact of its research, for example how its research provides benefits beyond academia to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment and quality of life. Overall, 86% of the university’s impact was assessed as world-leading and internationally excellent.

“The university was also recognised for the quality of its research environment, which encompasses the people, infrastructure, resources and activities that support research and enable impact. Some 91% of Swansea’s overall environment submission is recognised as world-leading and internationally excellent.

“Our results reflect a significant, overall increase in research activity at Swansea. We have seen a 97% increase in the number of PhDs awarded since REF2014, and our research income has increased by 160% in the same period, from £148m to £286m.

“Internationally, our global reputation as a collaborative research partner is flourishing, with our academic and business networks now covering 127 countries, and 54% of our research outputs are internationally co-authored.”

A spokesman for Cardiff Metropolitan University said: “Cardiff Met’s REF2021 submission was our largest ever – it was four times the size of 2014 and larger than our 2008 and 2014 submissions combined.

“Our submission increased from three to five units of assessment (UOA) and included researchers from all our academic schools and our International Centre for Design and Research.

“Results showed that 70% of our overall submission was judged to be either internationally excellent or world leading, with all UOAs containing world leading research. Across the whole submission, over 79% of our impact and 70% of our environment were judged to be either internationally excellent or world leading.

“Cardiff Met is immensely proud of our REF results and in particular the difference that our excellent research makes to society and the economy. Our researchers have made vital contributions to the health and prosperity of the world, and these results demonstrate our ability to deliver research and impact at the very highest levels.”

Responding to the league table rankings, Prof Jones said: “It’s fair to say that Cardiff has focussed on the Research Power measure in order to try to leverage more resource. And it’s had some success on that score.

“But overall, despite all the hype we’re hearing from the sector, the results are disappointing and underline the concerns I have expressed about the need not only for more research funding, but for a strategy in order to deliver improvement.

“One phrase I’d like to see banned from future discussions about Welsh universities is that they ‘punch above their weight’. The hard truth is that if you systematically underfund them over a lengthy period of time, then they’re simply not going to be able to compete.”

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