Anxious heads wrangle over RAE

March 31, 2006

Last week's Budget surprise has stirred panic and split opinion among v-cs. The Times Higher investigates how the future of funding could pan out

When officials at the Department for Education and Skills saw a late draft of the Treasury's 2006 Budget proposals, they were horrified to discover it contained a plan to scrap the 2008 research assessment exercise, The Times Higher can reveal.

Vice-chancellors said this week that the move to radically simplify research funding in the UK had caused a serious rift in the Government, with the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry supporting a move to metrics, and the DfES trying to defend the RAE.

One university head said: "When the statement came from the Treasury all hell broke loose because that draft said the 2008 RAE should be abolished."

The vice-chancellor added: "As I understand it, a small group of rebel vice-chancellors had been privately talking to the Treasury about the fact that the RAE was a total waste of time, saying what was needed was metrics."

A second vice-chancellor said: "The Treasury and DTI are strongly in favour of metrics, but the DfES is shellshocked. The first document it saw said the Government would scrap the RAE - this was released at the last minute and there was some negotiation about what was said."

But the DfES insisted that battle lines had not been drawn.

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said: "Only last week I announced the setting up of a working group to produce proposals on the use of metrics in research assessment. The group will be jointly led by the DfES and the English funding council, with Treasury representation."

What is certain is that the Budget announcement has caused deep divisions in the higher education community.

Some vice-chancellors hope to capitalise on the consultation and scrap all or part of the forthcoming exercise. Others are frantically lobbying the Government to stop this happening.

University heads from both sides of the divide claimed that theirs was the majority view.

A spokesperson for Universities UK said there was "a lot of diversity"

among members. A week on from Chancellor Gordon Brown's speech, both the Russell Group and Campaigning for Mainstream Universities admitted that they had yet to come up with a unified line.

Michael Sterling, former chair of the Russell Group, said: "I don't know if we can come to a joint position."

He said the group would meet this week to discuss the issue. But he added:

"If you accept that it will be a partial RAE, with some subjects opting out, then what vice-chancellors say ceases to be so important. The consultation could be done by subject."

The 1994 group of smaller research-intensive universities has given a faster and more decisive response. Basic modelling of how a switch to metrics might affect the sector suggests that institutions in this group could be the biggest casualties.

The group's new chair, Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, said: "With research-intensive universities now well into their planning for the 2008 RAE, and with universities working to deal with the consequences of the introduction of the new tuition fee system later in the year, we strongly support the Government's presumption that the 2008 RAE will continue as planned."

After 2008, there is everything to play for. Many are predicting that there will be a hybrid system, with arts and humanities being assessed separately from science.

But the so-called softer disciplines are determined that they should not be sidelined.

Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldmiths, University of London, said: "If we take together arts and humanities and the social sciences, we are talking about nearly half of research-active staff. This is not a marginal problem."

There will also be debate about when assessments should take place. Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol University and a longtime opponent of the RAE, said: "If the RAE 2008 goes ahead, its results must inform the research allocation for at least three years. If we start using metrics in 2009 why bother having an RAE?"

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