UK Research Assessment Exercise, Research Excellence Framework and Heterodox Economics

Prior to 1986, funding for research in British universities was built into expenditures per student. This was based on the assumption that all academics were engaged in research and scholarship as part of their role as academics. Additional funds for specific projects were available upon successful applications to the various research councils, such as the Social Science Research Council which started in 1965 and its successor the Economics and Social Research Council. However, beginning in the 1970s, the University Grants Committee (UGC) found that the government’s grant for the funding of teaching and research in British universities was declining in real terms. Moreover, in the early 1980s the universities fell victim to heavy cuts in public expenditure and it became apparent to many administrators in the field that excellence in research could not be maintained without applying some principle of selectivity in funding. Somewhat reluctantly, therefore, the UGC agreed to a research selectivity exercise whereby research funds were distributed to different departments according to the UGC’s assessment of its degree of excellence. The first exercise in 1986 was an ad hoc affair with the UGC hurriedly appointing its assessors and only a small proportion of research monies dependent on their ratings of departments. The second exercise was carried out by the UGC in 1989 with a larger proportion of research funding dependent on the ratings of duly constituted subject panels to whom departments were to submit more refined applications; and in 1992, its successor, the Universities Funding Council (UFC), carried out a third exercise. In 1992, over 90 percent of the UFC’s research funds were distributed by its successors, the Higher Education Funding Councils (HEFCs) for England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, according to the ratings of its subject panels and the pre-1992 universities had to compete for that money with the new universities (qua ex-polytechnics and other similar higher education institutions. As for the 1996 RAE, British universities prepared their submissions in an even tighter financial climate brought about by an average of a five percent reduction in real terms across the sector for 1996/97. Finally, the 2001 and 2008 RAEs were carried out under even a tighter financial climate.

There is a great deal of research on the impact of the RAE on academic disciplines and higher education in general. Some of it deals specifically with economics and the impact of the RAE on heterodox economics–see the references below.

It is particularly important to point out that the AHE has had to push itself before the various UK bodies dealing with research assessment in some manner or another to make its voice (and the voices of heterodox economists) heard. One example involved submitting nominations for the economics and econometrics panel for the 2014 Research in Excellence Framework assessment exercise. The same is planned for the 2021 REF Panel nominations. A second example of these efforts is given below in a letter to the AHE membership in 2008 regarding the international benchmarking review. Finally, on the behalf of the AHE, Alan Freeman has submitted papers to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education Benchmark Review in Economics, to the International Benchmarking Review—a project carried out by the Economics and Social Research Council, Royal Economics Society, and the Conference of Heads of University Departments of Economics, and to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Enquiry into Peer Review—see the references below. Without this constant effort by the AHE and other organisations that have appeared since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 e.g. Manchester Post Crash, Rethinking Economics, Promoting Economics Pluralism (PEP), heterodox economics in the UK would be much worse.

18 January 2008

UK Colleagues, AHE Members, and Others,

The ESRC in conjunction with the Royal Economic Society and the Conference of Heads of University Departments of Economics is undertaking an International Benchmarking Review of UK Economics. The remit of the review is as follows:

The Economic and Social Research Council has embarked on a series of international benchmarking reviews across the social sciences. This review has been established by the ESRC in partnership with the professional body for Economics in the UK, the Royal Economic Society, and in consultation with the Conference of Heads of University Departments of Economics. The object is to benchmark the current position of UK Economics research against the best done world-wide, highlighting strengths and weaknesses as appropriate.

The review report will probably suggest actions for the profession, funders and users of research. Whilst there may be recommendations for the ESRC, the outcomes will concern, and will be considered by, social science funders generally. For its part, the ESRC will use the review results to inform its work to sustain the health of social science disciplines, and to feed into its strategic planning process.

The International Benchmarking Review of UK Economics is managed by a steering group (chaired by Professor Sir John Vickers) that is comprised of senior academics, research funders and research users. The review will be undertaken by an International Panel which will visit the UK for a few days, to coincide with the RES Annual Conference in March 2008. The Panel consists of six leading international academics, chaired by Professor Elhanan Helpman, Harvard. They will meet with a number of UK scholars, study current UK research and assess the standing of Economics research in the UK against agreed criteria. After the fieldwork, the Panel will compile a report that summarises their assessment of current UK Economics research.

In order to provide context for the Panel, a briefing pack will be provided prior to their visit to the UK. This will include demographic and funding statistics, bibliometrics, the results of a survey of non-academic stakeholders, submissions from Heads of Departments of UK Economics and an overview of research quality in the principal sub-disciplines of UK Economics.

Although the ESRC initially overlooked the Association for Heterodox Economics, through the alertness and work of Andy Denis, Andrew Mearman, and Alan Freeman a letter on behalf of the AHE and its members was sent to the ESRC manager of the Review requesting that the AHE be allowed to make a submission:

The Association for Heterodox Economics is a British economics organization that is distinct from the Royal Economics Society.  It is committed to open dialogue in economics and progress towards that goal.

We have become aware of the current international benchmarking review of UK Economics. This is an issue on which we have made submissions before.

We should like more information about the current process. Our view is that because of the nature of our members’ views, which tend to be marginalised in debates in economics, they would most likely not be represented by the Royal Economics Society or in the submissions from UK Heads of Departments of Economics. We would welcome the opportunity to participate in the current international benchmarking review process.  Could you let us know if you would be willing to accept a submission from the Association that dealt with UK Economics in an International Context and the Health of the Discipline?

The manager of the Review responded positively:

Your association is very welcome to make a submission to the Review Panel – we will include this in its briefing materials. You may wish to limit your submission to no more than 2-3 sides of A4 as the Panel will have a very large number of papers to read through. We will need to receive you submission by mid-February in order to include this in the briefing pack for panel members which we are planning on sending out one month prior to their visit.

Therefore the AHE is now soliciting brief comments from all heterodox economists in the UK and elsewhere that fall under the following headings:

UK Economics in an International Context – your impressions of the strengths and weaknesses of the UK economic research area set within an international context.

Health of the Discipline – your views of the health of the discipline, including training and capacity issues.

Please send your brief and succinct comments to the AHE Coordinator, Alan Freeman ( by February 7th so that he can collate and submit them to the AHE Coordinating Committee which is meeting on February 9th. Anybody wishing to assist Alan (and Andrew and Andy) in drawing up the submission, please contact Alan at the above e-mail address.

For the International Benchmarking Review of UK Social Anthropology:

For the International Benchmarking Review of UK Politics and International Studies:

ESRC. 2008. International Benchmarking Review of UK Economics, available at:

Freeman, A. 2006. Submission from the Association for Heterodox Economics to the
consultation on the QAA Benchmark Statement on Economics. Download PDF here

Freeman, A. 2008. Submission from the Association for Heterodox Economics to the
International Benchmarking Review on Research Assessment. Download PDF here

Freeman, A. 2011. Submission from the Association for Heterodox Economics to the Science
and Technology Committee Enquiry into Peer Review. Download PDF here

Harley, S. and Lee, F. S. (1997) ‘Research Selectivity, Managerialism, and the Academic Labor
Process: the future of nonmainstream economics in U.K. universities’, Human Relations 50(11): 1427–1460.
Download PDF here

Lee, F. S. (2007) ‘The Research Assessment Exercise, the State and the Dominance of
Mainstream Economics in British Universities’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 3(2): 309-25. Download PDF here

Lee, F. S. (2009). A History of Heterodox Economics: challenging the mainstream in the 
twentieth century, London: Routledge.

Lee, F. S. (2009). A History of Heterodox Economics: challenging the mainstream in the
twentieth century—appendix,

Lee, F. S., Pham, X. and Gu, G. (2012) ‘The UK Research Assessment Exercise and the
Narrowing of UK Economics’. Download PDF here

Lee, F. S., Pham, X. and Gu, G. (2012) ‘The UK Research Assessment Exercise and the
Narrowing of UK Economics – Appendix’. Download PDF here

Lee, F. S. and Harley, S. (1998) ‘Peer Review, the Research Assessment Exercise and the
Demise of Non-Mainstream Economics’, Capital and Class, 66: 23–51  Download PDF here