Who is top in research tables?

30th January 2009 at 00:00
The results for teacher education institutes have produced some surprises

The latest league table in the Scottish education world puts Stirling University top, followed by Edinburgh and Glasgow.

On the other hand, if you do the calculations differently, the top three would be Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde.

Like all such tables, it depends on what you are measuring - in this case, it is quality or capacity in educational research.

The results of the higher education research assessment exercise (RAE) - the all-important test, carried out every seven years, to decide which universities will attract the greatest funding - has produced some surprises this time round.

On the basis of ranking education faculties according to their ratings for 4* - or world-leading - research, Stirling (one of the smaller ones) comes top of the Scottish higher education institutions, followed by Edinburgh and Glasgow. Stirling had 15 per cent of its research rated world-class, and 90 per cent of international significance.

If, however, you calculate the "power" rankings - based on multiplying the institution's grade average by the number of staff entered for assessment - the three biggest education faculties come top, with Stirling trailing in fourth place.

Richard Edwards, head of the Stirling Institute of Education, is delighted by its gradings, but acknowledges that, as a small institution, it has had to make a strategic decision to focus on a smaller number of research areas than some of its rivals. For the 2008 RAE, Stirling entered 20.6 members of staff compared to 26.9 in 2001 - a drop of 23 per cent in capacity.

As one of the three members of the AERS consortium (Applied Educational Research Scheme), along with Strathclyde and Edinburgh universities, it has benefited from its share of a Pounds 2 million research pot over the last five years.

But Professor Edwards acknowledges that AERS could have been more strategic in its direction and describes Scotland's showing overall in the RAE as "slightly disappointing". He added: "We are obviously very proud of the education system in Scotland, but we don't seem to be reflecting that as strongly in research as we would like."

The difficulty can be in researchers' ability to look beyond Scotland and see Scottish issues in an international context, he believes.

The challenge for all the education institutions is to build capacity for research among staff, many of whom enter from a teaching background with little research experience.

That has been Glasgow University's great success. Following a difficult merger between St Andrew's College of Education, the former Catholic teacher education institute, and a relatively small education department at the university, the faculty had a steep hill to climb in terms of increasing its research capacity.

It has, however, defied the doubters. From a previous entry to the RAE of 20.3 members of staff in 2001, it entered 62.3 in 2008 - an increase of 206.9 per cent. In terms of gradings, 10 per cent of its research is ranked world class and 65 per cent of international standard.

Education dean Jim Conroy deliberately entered researchers across the scale for the RAE, knowing that some would score less well than others but aiming to increase capacity and experience by doing so.

He draws the analogy of the independent school which enters only its most academic pupils for exams, so that they will keep up the school's reputation for lots of top grades, and the state comprehensive which enters all of its pupils, knowing that some may fail but will have had the experience and opportunity of trying.

Only a few miles away, across the west end of Glasgow, Strathclyde University's education faculty at Jordanhill has done well, but not outstandingly - 5 per cent world class research and 70 per cent of international standing. The dean, Jill Bourne, was brought in last year, largely to raise the faculty's research profile. Professor Bourne is investing in new research scholarships and plans to increase the links between education and social work to provide support for children's services.

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