The funding system for building and architectural research in universities was put under the spotlight this week over accusations of unfairness.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England announced a review into the system of assessing university research, following criticism by the House of Commons select committee on science and technology, and by schools of architecture such as the Bartlett at University College London and Nottingham University.

Government funding of university research departments is directly dependent on their gradings by the HEFCE's research assessment exercise. Currently, some £8m of funding a year is allocated to 17 high-grade building and architecture university departments.

Following an assessment last year, the Bartlett's grading was reduced from 5 – the second-top grade – to 4, and as a result government funding fell 23%, or £264,106 a year. The Bartlett claims the downgrading could affect its ability to attract students and other funding.

Last May, the school protested that the assessment was unfair, as its research and staffing had expanded since the previous assessment in 1996. Philip Steadman, professor of urban and built-form studies, claimed that membership of the HEFCE's built environment assessment panel was unrepresentatively weighted towards construction and surveying and against architecture.

The review committee will particularly welcome comments from critics of the research assessment

Howard Newby, chief executive, HEFCE

Steadman said all but one of the eight university departments of architecture and building awarded the two top grades – 5* and 5 – had staff members serving on the assessment panel.

The HEFCE has formally rejected the Bartlett's complaint as unjustified, and denied that the architecture school's claims provoked the review. However, HEFCE chief executive Howard Newby said the review committee "will particularly welcome comments from critics of the research assessment exercise, who we invite to help us identify the best options for the future".

On 25 April, the House of Commons select committee accepted that the HEFCE's research assessment exercise "is largely a reflection of reality". However, it added: "There are concerns about the way the panels operate, and their membership."