Leader: Better the RAE devil we know?

May 21, 2004

The research assessment exercise costs the higher education system millions of pounds and untold hours of effort, as well as causing unnecessary upheaval. Preparations for 2008 may be too far advanced to abort, but influential figures are determined to prevent a repeat. If they have their way, there will be an initial sigh of relief in academic circles, but the euphoria may not last long.

In an era of increasing transparency over the use of public money, it would be anomalous for the funding councils to distribute hundreds of millions of pounds a year for research without a clear idea of where it is going.

Giving all the money to the research councils has its attractions, but the committees that allocate their funds are not all-knowing. They tend to be driven by government priorities and next year's spending review.

Universities are right to be cautious about the prospect of losing money over which they have a reasonable amount of discretion, especially when some research councils might find that the full extent of their increased responsibilities overstretches their ability to take good decisions.

Critics of the RAE point out that the US has neither such an assessment exercise nor a funding council. But most research in the US is concentrated in major research universities, which typically have seed money to develop early-stage research. There are also far more sources of basic funding - from charities and the military to the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. In the sparser landscape of the UK, stripping the funding councils of their research funds could mean a monoculture of funding decisions. This is not to say the RAE is perfect. A quicker and simpler way of recognising research quality would be valuable, especially if it allowed departments that have improved their standing to gain recognition and cash. The RAE has become widely used - by industry, government, potential staff and many interest groups -as a measure of research quality.

This week's league tables are a reminder that interest in university performance is growing. If formal measures of both teaching and research standing are abandoned, less rigorous home-made ones will spring up to replace them.

Philippe Busquin, the European research commissioner, suggests that a new measure of quality is likely to be introduced in the next few years with the arrival of the European Research Council. The departments it funds will need to be visibly competitive on a continental rather than a national scale. UK research is strong enough to bid convincingly for this money - but it would be strange to enter this new world without a national system for measuring and assuring UK research quality.

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