REIs, individual funding, and institutional core funding
REIs are described in this report as being located between institutional core funding and traditional project funding. Many REIs certainly build on experience with other forms of project funding, adding aspects such as the requirement to concentrate resources and to build on strategic liaisons with the host institutions. Traditional funding of individual researchers or small teams has the advantage of being less susceptible to excessive concentration of resources, and, depending on how the allocation of funds is arranged, that it may not run the risk of funding those that are already most successful. Indeed, Aksnes et al. (2012, p. 13) report that in Norway and Sweden, this small-scale funding is being increased, partly as a consequence of the criticism levelled against REIs. Italy had a scheme called Centres of Excellence in two cycles from 2000 to 2006; since then, excellence funding through the ministry has focused less on structures and more on schemes in which the development of individual talent and research in areas of national interest are paramount. In a study of the Korean BK 21 scheme, Seong et al. (2008) propose directing excellence funds not to whole departments, but to “smaller groups or individual projects to increase competition both between and within universities” (Seong et al., 2008, p. 202).
In the case of the Swedish SRA, there is a move in the opposite direction, away from project funding and towards increased institutional core funding. Institutions will receive REI funds in addition to their core funding if their REI-funded activities are evaluated positively after five years. Elsewhere, however, increasing institutional core funding as an alternative to competitive measures does not appear to be discussed. This is understandable in view of the priority accorded to competitive forms of governance in the new public management approach (Wespel et al., 2012). However, as Salmi (2013) notes, becoming a world-class research university is “a marathon, not a sprint”. Salmi observes that most HEIs located at the top of global university rankings have taken a long time to get where they are now: “Developing a strong culture of excellence, especially in research, is the result of incremental progress and consolidation over several decades, sometimes centuries.” From this perspective, REI funding periods of five or even ten years do not seem overly long. Altbach (2011, p. 25) argues that internationally competitive research universities are expensive institutions that must have adequate and sustained budgets and cannot succeed if funding fluctuates severely over time.
As regards individual funding, REI funding and institutional core funding, the question does not seem to be which one is better suited to supporting high-quality research, but rather how all three should be balanced to optimal effect. There does not seem to be a consensus among countries on the correct balance, nor is it to be expected in view of the many factors that enter the equation.