An international REF? How about infinity and beyond?

Alistair McCulloch wonders if those seeking to expand research assessment beyond the UK are a bit too parochial in their ambitions

October 23, 2014

Source: Lev Radin/

“The next move should not be an international REF. Let us not be timid. Let us go for broke. Let us aim for the stars and institute an Intergalactic Research Excellence Framework where all universities in the Milky Way are judged one against the other by a jury drawn directly from the Gods of Yore.”

This is the bold proposal outlined by Alistair McCulloch (@prof_alistair), head of research education at the University of South Australia, on his Doctoral Education to Go! blog, which offers “a miscellany of commentary…relevant primarily to doctoral education but also to the big questions in higher education more generally”.

Professor McCulloch, previously professor and dean of research and knowledge transfer at Edge Hill University, outlines how universities’ outcomes might be graded in such an exercise. The top rating would be “awe-inspiring”, followed by “Earth-shattering”, “stellar” and “better than beyond the edge of the Universe”. The rules state that “in order to be funded, research achievement has to be ‘stellar’”.

“I shared this proposal with a colleague and he suggested a refinement (thanks Mike),” Professor McCulloch continues. “The results would have to be benchmarked against the other galaxies in the universe – let’s see whether Andromeda is interested in helping with providing some benchmarking data.”

The proposal emerged in response to the ever-increasing prevalence of national research excellence assessment exercises. “For the last couple of decades, exercises to assess the extent to which university research is excellent have been all the rage. The UK led the way with the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) to be followed by Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong among others,” he writes.

“With the passage of time, increasing amounts of research funding tend to be allocated on the basis of the results of these exercises and, so important have they become to individual universities, these exercises now drive the research cycle in the same way as national or general elections drive the economic cycles of individual states.” Over time, the required standards have increased “in terminological terms if not absolutely”.

“In the 1992 and 1996 RAEs in the UK, for example, standards were set in terms of ‘attainable levels of national (and) international excellence’. By 2001, the concept of the ‘star’ ratings of the top rating had evolved thus dividing submissions achieving a 5 into 5 and 5*.”

Seven years later, national and international excellence had been joined by “world-leading”, Professor McCulloch adds. “I joked at the time that the next stage had to be the search for research that was intergalactic in terms of its excellence.”

His blog links to a Higher Education Funding Council for England survey inviting views on an “internationalised system of research assessment” – an issue recently covered by Times Higher Education.

“Having been involved in all the UK [research assessment exercises] between 1992 and 2008, I shall of course be responding,” Professor McCulloch says, before outlining his intergalactic REF system. “Remember…you heard it here first,” he concludes. “And remember, the sky’s the limit…”

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