A very peculiar British practice

May 9, 2003

Hopelessly flawed assessment traps UK research in the past, says Robin Hambleton

Over Easter, I leafed through a copy of The THES on a visit to England.

Before taking up a position as a dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago last summer, I had enjoyed many happy years in UK higher education.

A quick scan of the paper, however, reminded me how hard it is to win support for socially relevant research in the UK.

First, the good news. Sir Howard Newby closed his article on the Higher Education Funding Council for England's draft strategic plan by urging academics to contribute ideas, a welcome consultative approach.

Now the bad news. The development of research in UK higher education appears to be trapped in the past. Long-established and powerful vested interests run the show, with the result that much funding is channelled in the wrong direction.

Exhibit A is the research assessment exercise. In the US, we do not have an RAE. So far as I know, this failure to grasp the value of an incredibly centralised approach to research funding, overseen by vested interests, is not holding back research in US higher education.

I was dismayed to discover that the hopelessly flawed RAE system is to be made even more ineffective by introducing a 6* category - a status granted to departments achieving a 5* grade in both the 1996 and 2001 RAEs. Such a change allocates yet more funds to a small number of already well-resourced departments, partly on the basis of work submitted almost a decade ago.

The continuing narrowness of research vision adopted by many RAE panels in 2001 means that the grades do not provide an accurate picture of research quality. One result is that some of the best and most relevant research is now being carried out in departments graded 3a, 4 and 5. The Hefce draft plans will starve them of much-needed support. I urge Sir Howard to resist the traditional elitism of UK higher education and reach out to support these lively and dynamic departments.

Exhibit B is the National Audit Office report Getting the Evidence: Using Research in Policy Making . This provides a devastating picture of the gulf that exists between UK academics and policy-makers - a chasm that means that much of the £1.4 billion that the government spends each year on research is wasted. The report says that academics have a poor understanding of policy questions; research results are not easily accessible; research results lack short-term relevance; academics are poor communicators; and dissemination is grossly undervalued in academia.

Does the RAE give serious attention and weight to each of these aspects of research? My guess is that many RAE panels never even thought about these criteria. No doubt some panel members can be found who even now will reject the NAO analysis. This is one of the reasons why the RAE needs radical reform. Bring in outsiders, assess departments on the five NAO tests, include these criteria in the RAE resource allocation formulae.

If there were a shift in the evaluation criteria to give real weight to what we call "engaged research", it would stimulate and encourage far more policy-relevant research. This would be good for intellectual endeavour as well as for the reputation of higher education. Research might even be seen to be making a difference.

Instead, ministers are introducing a system that bolsters the very centres that have benefited from ignoring the NAO's sound advice.

None of this is to suggest that UK universities should become mere servants of government - or servants of business or any other vested interest. It does, however, point to the need for radical reform of the RAE if UK universities are to achieve their enormous potential and make a valued contribution to society.

Robin Hambleton is dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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