31 December 2014, The Tablet

Heythrop’s research reveals 'dramatic improvement'

The quality of theological research undertaken by Heythrop College has dramatically improved, according to a major assessment of the expertise of British universities.

The Research Excellence Framework – which releases its results every five years – found that the college came top of British Catholic institutions for theological research.

It ranks research undertaken by higher education institutions, grading them with one to four stars, or “unclassified”. It is up to each institution how many staff put forward research for consideration, with the country’s largest universities able to field hundreds or even thousands of research staff.

The college scored a significantly higher mark than the last time the results were published in 2008 when none of the Jesuit-run college’s research was considered world-leading. This time 22 per cent of Heythrop’s research has been classed in this four-star category.

While the college specialises in both theology and philosophy, it did not submit research in the latter subject. The college stated, however, that its results reflected the “combined work of philosophy, theology and related subjects”.

Currently part of the University of London, Heythrop is in talks with St Mary’s University, Twickenham, which appeared lower down in the REF rankings, with 9 per cent of its theology research graded as world leading.

Top of the list for expertise in theological research is the University of Durham, which has a Centre for Catholic Studies that has undertaken research on ecumenism. Durham also came top in 2008.

Other Catholic universities, Leeds Trinity and Newman, occupied the bottom two places for expertise in theological research, according to the table compiled by the Times Higher Education supplement. Overall, however, all the Catholic universities improved their position from last time and traditionally have been teaching-led rather than research focused institutions Liverpool Hope, a Catholic and Anglican foundation, also produced a better score than 2008.

Elsewhere, following submission of historical research for the first time, 12 per cent of St Mary’s University expertise in this field was graded as world leading. The university also performed well in sport, where 15 per cent of research was given four stars.

However in educational research, St Mary’s, a former teacher-training college, finished bottom of the REF subject list, as it did in the field of philosophy although this was the first time it had submitted research for this subject.

St Mary’s has faced difficulties in recent years with the departure of former principal, Professor Philip Esler, and a Quality Assurance Agency investigation into a course on clinical hypnosis.

A significant factor in the research assessment is the number of staff eligible to submit their work. Some institutions may have large departments but only a relatively small number are producing significant research.

In the overall rankings, five of the top-10 placings are constituent colleges of the University of London, which Heythrop College would have to leave if it goes into partnership with St Mary’s. Heythrop recently made the decision to stop recruiting for undergraduates. 

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