Research into practice

The 2001 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) conducted by the
higher education funding councils shows the quality of social work
research in the UK’s universities at a 10-year high. In the past
decade RAEs have been conducted in 1992, 1996 and 2001.

The higher education funding councils introduced a seven-point
grading system in 1996, on which universities are graded from 1 to
5*, according to peer-judgments of research quality, as outlined in
the table below.

The key trends in social work research over this period

  • A slight decline in the number of institutions entering the RAE
    (34 in 1992; 32 in 1996; and 30 in 2001). However, consistency in
    research activity is evidenced in that 16 universities have
    featured in each of the three RAEs.
  • An improvement in the quality of social work research – the
    number of universities achieving a grading of 5 or 5* increasing
    from two (5.9 per cent) in 1992 to five (15.6 per cent) in 1996 and
    eight (26.7 per cent) in 2001.
  • An increase in the total number of “research active” social
    work researchers from 294.7 full-time equivalents (all the figures
    below are for full-time equivalents) in 1992 to 383 in 2001.
  • An increasing concentration of researchers in high-scoring
    institutions. In 1992, some 30.9 (10.5 per cent) of all social work
    researchers were employed in institutions ranked as either 5 or 5*.
    By 1996 this had increased to 78.1 (22.1 per cent) and by 2001 to
    147.4 (38.5 per cent).

For universities, this is not just the grading and league table
positioning; it makes a significant difference to research income.
And while there was an above-inflation increase in RAE funding for
2002-3 across all subject areas, this did not match the increase in
“top-rated” research, and only 5* rated departments saw their RAE
income protected. This is the downside for social work research.
While all universities submitting in 1992 and 1996 received some
RAE funding, only those scoring 3a or above will receive funding
after 2001.

Furthermore, universities that have merely consolidated but not
improved their grading face real cuts. Those graded 5 in both 1996
and 2001 are now facing a 12.3 per cent cut in RAE income, while
those graded 3a in both RAEs are contemplating a 62.7 per cent
reduction. Only one university, Bristol, received a 5* grade for
social work in 2001.

This does not simply set the scene for short-term funding; the 2001
RAE provides the basis for research funding at least until 2005-6
and possibly longer, depending on when universities’ research
income is next reviewed. Some universities are considering whether
it is worth their while undertaking research at all.

The major hope for the future of UK social work research, despite
significant improvement in the last decade, rests in the Higher
Education Funding Councils’ planned review of research

All RAE results can be viewed in full at

Eric Blyth is professor of social work at the University of

Grades and definitions used in the 2001 Research
Assessment Exercise

Grade Levels of national and international excellence in research

5* –  International excellence in more than half and national
excellence in the remainder

5 – International excellence in up to half and national excellence
in virtually all of the remainder

4 – National excellence in virtually all and some evidence of
international excellence

3a – National excellence in over two- thirds and possibly some
evidence of international excellence

3b – National excellence in more than half

2 – National excellence in up to half

1 – National excellence in none, or virtually none

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