Leader: Be sure next step is no leap in dark

April 28, 2006

The Higher Education Policy Institute's report on the use of metrics to allocate research funds raises serious questions, not just about the proposals, but also about the whole process of abandoning the research assessment exercise. It is perhaps not surprising that an organisation with roots in the body that developed the RAE should champion its attributes - the funding councils will have modelled the impact of metrics on numerous occasions without adopting them. But Hepi is right that it would be bad practice to ditch the RAE without a thorough examination of the implications. Chancellor Gordon Brown's statement, underpinned by the bulky Next Steps report, has created the impression of a fait accompli, notwithstanding the deliberations of the joint working party on the subject.

As the government department ultimately responsible for the billions of pounds invested in university research, it is natural for the Treasury to keep a close eye on how the cash is spent. No one was complaining about interference when its ten-year science strategy promised to double the research budget. But this would not be the first time that micromanagement of the allocation process has been imposed. The 6* research grades dreamed up as part of the last Higher Education White Paper are already a fading memory that should serve as a warning against rushed interventions.

Some blame must attach to the funding councils for failing to make more substantial reforms to a process that has few defenders inside higher education or in Whitehall. Many in authority in universities preferred the devil they knew to the more radical proposals put forward by Sir Gareth Roberts three years ago. But the RAE, for all the benefits it brought initially in sharpening up UK research, could not and should not last for ever. Its days were clearly numbered after the 2001 exercise and for the Government to wait until 2006 to take action was inexplicable.

There is no turning back the clock, however, and we will have to live with a compressed debate. Metrics already play a part in the allocation of research funds and in the RAE itself. There is a compelling case for extending that role, if not necessarily to rely on them entirely. A different system may be required in the arts and social sciences, there may need to be incentives to preserve the position of young researchers and it will be surprising if there are not other refinements.

Whether or not this week's report is right that metrics will be more costly than the RAE depends on their impact on academic behaviour, as well as on the basis of the costings. But there is no doubt that universities will tailor their activities to any funding system. The funding councils and the research councils, rather than the Treasury, are the bodies that are best able to judge the likely impact of change. They must be given the time to satisfy themselves that metrics - or a system in which metrics play a greater role - will not constitute what Hepi dubs a "huge leap into the unknown".

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