Which, now, are the elite UK humanities units? Or, some more thoughts on the REF

The REF is relentlessly grinding the wheels of research concentration. While we may have been distracted, in the early days after 18 December, by continuing evidence of pockets of excellence, one of the most striking tables is that of research power, which correlates almost perfectly with a list of Russell Group members. Once the QR funding formula is determined, we will see a tightening concentration of resources.

I hadn’t intended to write any more about the REF, but this evidence of concentration got me thinking. If the REF is working to consolidate a research elite across the board, my question is: how does this look for the humanities? The humanities are less dependent than the sciences on size and resources, and so can perhaps be a little more volatile; however, they form a big part of most universities, educationally and reputationally.

We know that REF data can be read in all sorts of different ways, and that different univerisites (indeed, different units of assessment within universities) adopted different tactics this time, in order to achieve different ends. This is all absolutely true. Nonetheless, it seems inarguable to me that there are four measures on which we would all like to see our own departments rank highly. These are: a) overall GPA (which factors most directly into league tables); b) intensity-adjusted GPA (which feels like a more honest assessment of performance across a unit); c) research power (which predicts the financial dividend); and d) outputs (which remain the element of the REF that most academics, in the UK and beyond, prize most highly).

The tables below apply these measures to three disciplines: English, History and Classics. I’ve chosen English and History because they’re the two biggest disciplines in most humanities units. I’ve added Classics because I wanted a smaller unit – yet, reputationally, still a core one – by way of comparison. (I possibly should have added Modern Languages, but, to be honest, the way that UoA combined linguistics and languages just confuses me.) The tables give ‘top 10’ lists for English and History and a ‘top 5’ for Classics, in light of the fact that there were only 22 submissions to that panel (against 89 for English and 83 for History).

Some comments to follow, but this is what I got.


A. GPA B. Intensity GPA C. Research power D. Outputs
Warwick QM Oxford Warwick
York UCL Cambridge York
Newcastle St Andrew’s Glasgow Durham
Durham Cambridge Lancaster UCL
QM Notts QM Aberdeen
St Andrew’s Queen’s Warwick QM
UCL York Exeter Newcastle
Swansea Durham King’s St Andrew’s
Sussex Bangor York Cambridge
UEA Kent Nottingham Cardiff


A. GPA B. Intensity GPA C. Research power D. Outputs
Birmingham Cambridge Oxford Sussex
York Oxford Cambridge Sheffield
Southampton UEA Edinburgh Southampton
Sheffield Sheffield Glasgow Manchester
King’s UCL LSE Birmingham
Hertfordshire Edinburgh UCL York
Warwick Birkbeck Exeter Exeter
Oxford Kent King’s King’s
Exeter LSE Birmingham Warwick
Cambridge Strathclyde St Andrew’s Cambridge


A. GPA B. Intensity GPA C. Research power D. Outputs
Cambridge Cambridge Oxford St Andrew’s
Durham Oxford Cambridge Reading
St Andrew’s Nottingham King’s Durham
Oxford Durham Edinburgh Warwick
Birmingham Warwick Birmingham Nottingham

I want to make three points about these tables. Firstly, while there remains a place for the plucky outsider, it’s not much more than a niche position. Ten universities figure just once on the tables: a couple of these are universities one might have expected to do a little better, but most are simply units that have outperformed on one measure. That’s nice to see, for the health of our disciplines, but my feeling (just a feeling – I haven’t run comparisons with 2008) is that it’s becoming rarer. Secondly, some of the more established players are relying heavily on one discipline. Queen Mary, for instance, has four entries in the tables, but all of them in English; Sheffield leans, almost as heavily, on History. Thirdly, I’m surprised by a couple of names missing from the tables. Leeds would have figured if I had included theology and religious studies (ditto ML). But still: Leeds? Liverpool? Bristol?

Finally, though, I want to return to the big picture: the formation of an elite. The table below lists, on the left-hand side, the number of times that different universities figure in the tables above. The list includes all universities listed more than once, and uses bold type for those listed for more than one discipline. On the right-hand side is the rank-order of British universities from the Times Higher international league table for the humanities. The question is simple enough: to what extent, when we correlate these lists, do we identify a consolidating elite?

Entries in top 5/10 tables (above) THE international rankings
Cambridge (10) Oxford
Oxford, Warwick (7) Cambridge
Durham, St. Andrew’s, York (6) Edinburgh
Birmingham, UCL (5) St Andrew’s
Exeter, Nottingham, Queen Mary (4) Warwick
Edinburgh, King’s, Sheffield (3) LSE
Glasgow, Kent, LSE, Manchester, Newcastle, Southampton, Sussex, UEA Nottingham

None of us much likes the international tables (which I’ve written about before). Our eyes, in particular, are always drawn to entries that look anomalous – and there are plenty of those. But we’re getting a rough correlation here, and maybe even a direction of travel. The comparison highlights, perhaps, some places living off last year’s reputation (or the reputation of their scientist colleagues), and vice versa. My prediction, in conclusion, would be that, over the next few years, the list on the right will gradually come to look more like the one on the left.


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