RAE review: Precocious teenager will benefit from scholarship

December 6, 2002

The research assessment exercise review panel wants to see radical change. The THES asks three experts to do some out-of-the-box thinking

It is 15 years since the first research assessment exercise, and it is easy to list its manifold achievements. Quality now figures more prominently in all that universities do. Successive RAEs have been conducted with increasing transparency and one can only admire the proficiency of those on the panels. And RAE grades are a magnet for additional research funding, from industry, charities and elsewhere. But despite these attributes, I feel increasingly uneasy with the RAE. A major restructuring is long overdue, and we are fortunate in having Sir Gareth Roberts (a combination of visionary and pragmatist) to lead it, writes David Clark.

Although the RAE has given admirable attention to quality, it has failed to give adequate recognition to multidisciplinarity. It has not encouraged inter-institutional collaboration and it has not recognised the value of engagement with industry and other users of the knowledge and skills generated by universities. The RAE has been structured largely on single disciplines, has perpetuated university isolation and has focused on academic-only research. Despite some generic guidance to panels about the importance of connectivity, the exercise has been based overwhelmingly on individual scholarship amalgamated to give a departmental grading.

We need an RAE that is firmly based on scholarship (the core business of any university), that makes the role of the different funders of universities clear, that rewards excellence while encouraging innovation, that promotes multidisciplinarity, that stimulates partnerships between institutions and with users, that is easy to understand and that is less time-consuming.

The time involved in the process is mind-boggling. Universities set up committees between each RAE to test scenarios, model possible outcomes and consider reorganisations to maximise potential income from the next exercise. The preparation of submissions dominates universities in the run-up to the RAE. Yet the outcome is so strongly correlated with research income from external funders that the grading could be achieved at the press of a button.

Take the chemistry results from the 1996 exercise. If one ranked the top 24 chemistry departments in 1996 by grant income from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, one RAE grade 4 department would in fact have got a 5 and four 3a departments would have got 4s. Such trivial changes from a straight rank-ordering based on grant income won through competitive peer review (for experimental disciplines where grant income is a key requirement) cannot possibly justify the effort involved in the RAE. Research grant income is prospective - published papers, which dominate the RAE, are retrospective. Nevertheless, the correlation between RAE grade and grant income should not come as a surprise. Such a strong correlation suggests that at least part of the funding council support formula should be based on such a simple, transparent and non-controversial formulaic basis.

Scholarship is a much underused term these days. Yet scholarship is the foundation in universities that research councils, industry and commerce, charities and others that commission research can reasonably expect to have been put in place with funding council investments. Scholarship should form the basis of future RAEs. Universities should be asked to formulate plans for scholarship; describing how they intend to focus on excellence, nurture new talent, encourage multidisciplinarity, give recognition to national priorities and invest in the infrastructure necessary to be world leading. They should also plan to increase their partnerships with other seats of scholarship (in the UK and elsewhere) and with industry, the service sector and government.

"Business plans for scholarship" could then be judged by those who not only recognise the importance of scholarship as the engine for innovation (sustaining economic competitiveness and quality of life), but can also judge the credibility of resource-management proposals and project-management plans. Such business plans would in effect be investment prospectuses, against which universities could be ranked and funding levels decided. The focus on excellence would be retained throughout.

Our universities are a success story. Thoughtful, focused and increasing investment is needed to ensure they remain so.

David Clark is director, research and innovation, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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