In the RAE, departments are ranked by the proportion of research they have in five different categories, as follows:
4*: Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
3*: Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which nonetheless falls short of the highest standards of excellence.
2*: Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
1*: Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
Unclassified: Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.
The three departments faced with closure had no research ranked in category 4*. According to Times Higher Education, "The university has questioned whether this is “acceptable” for a member of the Russell Group of 20 research-led institutions".
So, how did the threatened departments do overall? Here's their breakdown from the 2008 RAE (source):
Statistics: 4*, 0%; 3*, 35%; 2*, 50%; 1*, 15%; UC, 0%.
Politics and Communication: 4*, 0%; 3*, 15%; 2*, 55%; 1*, 25%; UC, 5%.
Philosophy: 4*, 0%; 3*, 25%; 2*, 60%; 1*, 15%; UC, 0%.
These results are surely not disastrously bad. In all cases, the vast majority of research is ranked at 3* and 2* levels: that is, it is considered to be internationally excellent or internationally recognised. Is this really such a poor performance that it requires the closure of the departments?
The threat of closure of these departments raises the question of what a university is actually for. If it only exists to receive as much research funding as possible, then closure is a perfectly sensible action. But if you consider the university as a community of scholars, with everyone (from undergraduates to professors) learning from each other, then closing these departments is going to contribute to the narrowing of the university experience for everyone. Is that really what the University of Liverpool wants to acheive? And is that what the Russell Group is supposed to be about?