After flawed consultation, flawed results

February 27, 1998

As the Higher Education Funding Council for England starts considering responses to its questions on the future of research assessment, John Pratt says damage limitation is the best that can be hoped for, while Janet Lewis (inset) says the document begged the question

It is possible that the respondents to the Higher Education Funding Council for England's consultation paper on the future of research assessment need not have bothered. The exercise is supposed to let the higher education community consider whether there should be another RAE. But nearly all of its 42 questions are about detail of how the RAE should be carried out, implying that its continuation is a foregone conclusion.

There is little evidence that the RAE achieves HEFCE's aim of "promoting excellence in research". The consultation shows that its benefits are mainly for management and accountability; it admits drawbacks of short-termism, cost and the "transfer market".

A funding system to promote excellence in research would not look like the RAE. For a start, the RAE relies on peer review. A substantial literature shows that peer review values prestige not merit and favours confirmative rather than challenging research.

The outcome of successive RAEs has been to concentrate research funding in a few institutions. Arguably, this encourages excellence, but it shows that there is not much point having a major competitive exercise every four years. If the RAE has concentrated high-quality research in particular departments, these will score highly. The larger part of the outcome is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why bother with the exercise?

It might be argued that the RAE aims to promote new and enterprising research. But if the RAE reveals high-quality research in a hitherto low-scoring unit of assessment, the exercise has previously been a failure for not funding a promising department. HEFCE ends up backing the favourite, but only after it has won the race.

What can HEFCE do? Best would be to stop the whole RAE. If the intention is to promote excellence, rewarding the wealthy is not necessarily the means to achieve it. One way would be to base research funding on institutions' strategic plans. My colleague Michael Locke and I have shown that it is possible to manage the process to achieve this. It would be no more complicated than the present system and less damaging to research. It would mean that institutional research strategies could actually be related to research rather than to second guessing the next RAE's rules.

Reality, reflected in the consultation document, suggests this is unlikely. It is unlikely, too, that radical changes will be made in the next RAE. Perhaps damage limitation is all we can hope for.

Two simple steps could be taken. First, to mitigate the anxiety, frenetic (non-research) activity and cost in institutions, the proportion of the funds allocated on the basis of RAE could be reduced to the average percentage change of the past few years. This funding was, after all, part of the old UGC block grant, allocated to support the mainstream activities of universities, and the larger part can legitimately be rolled forward.

Second, the induced short-term management within institutions could be reduced by locating the exercise part-way through the funding cycle, rather than at the end, so that institutions would know a year or more in advance what their future funding prospects are. Research is a long-term investment; it needs long-term horizons.

John Pratt is director of the Centre for Institutional Studies at the University of East London.

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