Leader: RAE consensus too good to last

September 29, 2006

The three submissions published this week by university groups on the future of research assessment and funding hold no great surprises, but they constitute an interesting case study on the way in which the higher education sector will represent itself in future. Research is one of the areas in which institutional interests diverge most obviously. There was even a rare vote at this month's Universities UK conference to decide the chairmanship of the organisation's research committee. Yet UUK has been able to set out some clear principles - including the retention of dual support and quality-related funding - while the 1994 and Russell groups have stressed their own interests. Campaigning for Mainstream Universities may have its own distinctive take on the subject, but it presumably will not depart from the key principles.

One reason for this outbreak of consensus is the disastrous nature of the Treasury proposals as modelled by funding council officials and civil servants. Even the strongest supporters of metrics as the sole alternative to the research assessment exercise have had to admit that if the six models unveiled this summer were the best that could be produced, the proposals were dead in the water. Not only was the system unsuited to the arts and social sciences, but the universities that were rewarded or penalised were so randomly distributed that there appeared to be almost no systematic connection with quality. It was instantly clear that replacing the RAE was not as straightforward as had been made out. Education Secretary Alan Johnson noted wryly in his speech to UUK that he did not recall such affection for the exercise in his previous stint at the department. But even then, when Sir Gareth Roberts put forward reforms, the devil universities knew became suddenly more attractive.

All three of this week's responses acknowledge that the RAE (in its current form) will have to go and more use will have to be made of metrics. But the successor will almost certainly include some characteristics of the existing system, including an element of peer review. Mr Johnson has already acceded to demands for greater involvement by universities in the development of a new system, which should involve a variety of indicators and be phased in only after a decent interval following the 2008 RAE.

Whether the consensus endures will depend partly on the Treasury's motivation for its unexpectedly detailed intervention. It is hard to imagine that it was all about the efficient allocation of money, however large the sums. If instead it signalled a desire to switch more funding to science and technology - and especially to applied research - fault lines will surely begin to appear as the details emerge.

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