AUA Conference: REF will not concentrate research cash, says Hefce

Senior official rejects claim that RAE successor's use of metrics will benefit elite, writes John Gill

April 16, 2009

A senior funding council executive has denied suggestions that the system being set up to replace the research assessment exercise will further concentrate funding in the hands of the elite.

Paul Hubbard, head of the research policy team at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, responded to claims made by Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and president-elect of Universities UK, that the research excellence framework's use of metrics would lead to more concentrated funding.

Professor Smith told the annual conference of the Association of University Administrators that, while the final RAE had led to a wider dispersal of funding, the global trend was towards concentration.

He said: "The longer-term trend is towards research concentration - that's an international trend. I think we have to ask ... will the future be more like the RAE result: 150 institutions with (world-leading) 4* activity ... (resulting in) research concentration moving away a bit?

"I think it's going to come back, and if you want my prediction, it's going to come back through the research councils."

He added that the REF would be "of critical importance". Unlike the RAE, which was based on peer-review judgments, the REF will use a combination of peer review and numerical indicators, such as the number of times academics' work is cited by their peers.

Professor Smith said: "Whatever subject area you are in, it will be looking much more towards metrics ... The more you move (towards) metrics, the more you move (towards) concentration."

But Mr Hubbard responded: "There's (no) agenda to develop the REF ... to drive greater concentration. At the moment, our agenda remains funding excellence wherever we find it. It is possible that we may put a different organisational slant on it in the future, but certainly there's no agenda of that sort at the moment."

Professor Smith, who said the REF would "create a different world", predicted that universities would have to focus more on postgraduate provision. Mr Hubbard also raised questions about postgraduate study in the UK, noting that key disciplines relied heavily on overseas research students.

The research output of countries such as Brazil, China and India was growing rapidly, he said, and "we must assume that the quality will catch up".

"That will be a real challenge: when there are many ... exciting places to go, will researchers and postgraduates continue to come to the UK?" Mr Hubbard asked.

The comparatively low number of home students signing up for PhDs was cause for concern, too, he added. "In five or ten years, will the really bright postgraduates still be there, snapping at the heels of the older generation? If they are not, we will not have a research base, so this is a really serious question."

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