Regional universities in the UK will get a funding boost over the next seven years after a national survey found they had improved the quality of their research.
Birmingham, Northumbria, Leicester and Hull were among the universities to most improve their rankings in the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a government-backed survey that takes place every seven years and published its findings on Thursday.
While the so-called “golden triangle” of world-leading institutions such as Imperial College London, Cambridge and Oxford remained the highest-ranking in the survey, experts said the strong performance of regional universities showed they could compete with those traditionally prized for research and help address regional inequalities.
According to a widely used breakdown of data by Times Higher Education, University of Birmingham rose from 31st place to 13th in research excellence. University of Hull rose from 72nd place to 55th, and University of Leicester from 53rd to 30th.
Steven Hill, director of research at Research England, which carried out the survey, said the results showed a “really even distribution of research excellence across the UK”.
“[It shows] that the UK’s research system is well placed to meet the government’s ambitions for levelling up,” he added.
High scores in the REF, which is carried out by the UK’s four higher education funding bodies and used to inform the allocation of £2bn of public research funding, are prized by higher education institutions.
Universities spend years compiling submissions, which judges research based on academic rigour and impact in areas such as public policy, society or commerce.
All UK university research staff were required to participate and submitted their data last year. Over 76,000 took part — 52 per cent more than the last survey in 2014 — and universities were judged on a wider range of research impacts than in previous surveys. This contributed to a higher proportion of research being rated excellent, according to Research England.
Nationally, 41 per cent of research was judged to meet the highest ranking of “world leading”, up from 30 per cent in 2014.
Northumbria University in Newcastle rose the highest number of places in a ranking of “research power”, which compares the quality of work in relation to the number of researchers, rising to 23rd place from 50th in 2014 and 80th in 2008. The university rose from 70th to 58th in the overall rankings.
Andrew Wathey, vice-chancellor, said the scores moved Northumbria into territory that was once the preserve of the prestigious Russell Group of top universities.
“Northumbria is the first modern university to cross the clear blue water that separated the old and the new parts of the sector, and others are following,” he said.
“This is important for the economy of the north east, for inward investment — public and private — for future collaboration between the universities and business, and for the levelling-up impacts of research.”
Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of Million Plus, which represents newer universities, said changes to assessment methods had “helped to better identify and recognise excellence”.
“It is our hope now that this positive change will also be reflected in a more equitable distribution of funding for UK research,” she said.