41% would like next exercise to be halted

October 13, 2006

Academics, vice-chancellors and learned societies all agree - the RAE must go. But there's no consensus about what should replace it, The Times Higher finds.

Two fifths of academics would cancel the 2008 research assessment exercise despite years of intensive preparation for the event, a poll has found.

A survey of more than 1,500 academics by the University and College Union, published this week, found that 41 per cent of lecturers and researchers think the periodic mass scramble for a share of the billions of pounds of government research grants should be scrapped.

A similar proportion said that the exercise should go ahead but should be replaced after a major review of the assessment and funding of university research. Some 13.2 per cent of staff said the RAE should continue unchanged.

Universities have spent the past several years preparing for the 2008 exercise, restructuring to maximise their chances of success and conducting mock exercises. Hundreds of academics were recruited to expert panels early last year.

But the UCU has argued that the exercise badly skews research practice, forcing staff to rush research findings into refereed journals instead of encouraging blue-skies thinking. It believes the RAE encourages a damaging transfer market for top academics while discriminating against less research-active staff.

Sally Hunt, UCU joint general secretary, said: "The RAE is a fundamentally flawed system that has done enormous damage to research, scholarship and teaching in higher education. It has led to the unfair treatment of staff, particularly women, and to departmental closures and job losses."

The UCU poll, released to coincide with a national conference on the future of research, found that 76 per cent of staff agreed that the existing RAE concentrated too much funding in a small elite of universities.

Some 87 per cent of respondents agreed that existing RAE funding "promotes a short-termist, competitive funding environment that gets in the way of innovation in research".

In contrast, 17 per cent of staff agreed that RAE funding "promotes a healthy competition, which guarantees that excellence is rewarded".

As The Times Higher revealed last week, some 81 per cent of respondents oppose the Government's proposals to scrap the exercise in favour of a system of distributing research funding using metrics - measurements of existing information, such as a department's success in obtaining grants from the research councils.

Some 56.9 per cent prefer to stick with some form of peer review. The survey found that 85 per cent believe that research funding should continue to be linked to an assessment of quality, and 85 per cent believe that the funding system should allow all academics to engage in research and scholarship.

Some 94 per cent said that research funding should "protect and promote blue-skies research regardless of its immediate application to business".

This compared with just 22 per cent who said that research funding "should prioritise research that is directly beneficial to business and the public".

Ms Hunt said: "UCU reiterates its call for a fundamental review of research funding and assessment and the development of sensible, workable alternatives that will treat staff fairly while maintaining and expanding the overall effectiveness of our research base.

"Our survey results suggest that any credible alternatives must contain a significant element of peer review, begin to reverse the overconcentration of research funding and actively support the dissemination of research through teaching."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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