Assessment reassessed

April 7, 2006

The Australian Government has delayed introducing a research quality assessment scheme despite a report it commissioned calling for the system to be in place by next year.

Julie Bishop, federal Education Minister, announced that she was establishing an advisory group to consider the report instead of accepting its recommendation for a committee to implement the scheme immediately.

Ms Bishop backed away from supporting any of the report's recommendations and appeared to question whether the proposed scheme would be adopted. She set up a 12-member committee headed by Jim Peacock, Australia's chief scientist, to review the recommendations.

Brendan Nelson, her predecessor, appointed a group of experts two years ago to develop a system of assessing research quality. Mr Nelson asked Sir Gareth Roberts, who led a review of Britain's research assessment exercise in 2003, to head the group.

Sir Gareth said a fundamental aspect of the Australian research quality framework model was review by peers and "qualified end-users". Current research funding was based on inadequate measures of quality such as publications, external research income and student completions, he said.

"My experience in the UK clearly demonstrates that the only system that will enjoy the confidence of the research community is one based on expert review," he said. "I am pleased that the Australian research quality framework will be underpinned by this vital principle."

Higher education lobby groups welcomed Ms Bishop's decision to delay implementing the recommendations, but there were conflicting attitudes to the scheme.

The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee said the timeline might not be adequate given the amount of work facing the new advisory group.

"The AVCC also welcomes the acknowledgement that further consideration of the RQF model will need to occur if the Government is to adopt it," said Gerard Sutton, the AVCC president.

Referring to the possibility that Britain might consider a simpler metrics-based system, Professor Sutton said Australia was already using a metrics-style assessment framework that took into account research income, research publications and research student load and completions.

He said the RQF's implementation costs could reach A$40 million (£16 million). Vice-chancellors say these costs should not be met with existing resources.

Glyn Davis, chair of the Group of Eight research-intensive universities, said that before moving to a full RQF, the Government should conduct a detailed analysis of available research performance metrics - as the British Government had announced.

"It may be that Australia can move to a far simpler and cheaper metrics-based approach much more quickly than has occurred in the UK,"

Professor Davis said. "We remain concerned about a number of the recommendations or lack thereof."

A spokeswoman for the five universities that form the Australian Technology Network said its vice-chancellors believed it was critical that a simple metrics system should be adopted that reflected the impact of research.

Steven Schwartz, who has just taken over as vice-chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney after heading Brunel University, said critics claimed the RAE was too expensive and bureaucratic while advocates said it had raised the level of research and helped develop research capacity.

"Of course, both critics and advocates are correct," he said. "But continuing the RAE would probably not produce gains commensurate with the expense."

Professor Schwartz said that doing an RQF once or twice in Australia might be worth the cost and bother because it would provide information not presently available about where Australian universities stand in the world.

"It would give universities the motivation to invest in their specialities and to lift their game," he said.

The report is available at www.dest.gov.au/resqual/default.htm

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