Australians lend an ear to Hefce chair

January 28, 2005

Sir Gareth Roberts is heading an expert committee to advise the Australian Government on how best to assess the quality of publicly funded research.

The chair of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's research committee will lead a 12-member group of national and international experts experienced in the assessment of research quality.

The committee will hold wide-ranging consultations, release an issues paper and hold a major stakeholders' forum before reporting back by the end of the year.

Sir Gareth said the development of an Australian research quality framework (RQF) would take account of research assessment exercises undertaken in Britain and other countries. But the advantages and drawbacks of different approaches would need to be considered.

Australian National University vice-chancellor Ian Chubb, a member of the advisory group and chair of the Group of Eight research-intensive universities, said the country's sector was too small to adopt the UK model.

"Still, it's a very important question to ask: how good are Australian researchers, and in what ways can we improve what we do?" he asked. "At present, we don't have any substantial means of identifying and rewarding the best possible research - what we lack is really good information."

Sir Gareth agreed that the Australian higher education sector had its own set of characteristics that set it apart from the UK system. "A key difference between the UK RAE and any Australian RQF model, or models, is that the intention is to apply the framework to publicly funded research agencies as well as universities," he said. "The RQF's breadth of scope needs to be taken into account when considering any connections to funding distribution."

Sir Gareth is due to visit Australia three times this year, in March, June and September. But he told The Times Higher that the group would also hold additional discussions as needed.

"Each visit will also provide an opportunity to meet with other key stakeholders," he said. Announcing details of the group, Education Minister Brendan Nelson said the development of a research quality framework would lead to a more consistent and comprehensive approach to assessing publicly funded research.

Dr Nelson said that Sir Gareth, who is also president of Oxford University's Wolfson College, was an expert in research quality assessment and had led the 2003 UK-wide review of research assessment. The advisory group's report would set out a preferred model for assessing research quality in Australia, he said.

"This financial year, more than A$3 billion (£1.22 billion) will be invested by the Howard Government in research and research training," Dr Nelson said. "The Government is committed to ensuring that these resources are directed to areas of research excellence and public benefit." Dr Nelson released a discussion paper that noted that there was no consistent way at present to measure the quality and impact of research conducted in Australian universities and other publicly funded agencies - or its benefits to the wider community.

A transparent framework for assessing research quality to assist institutions that received public funding to focus on improving the quality and impact of their research was needed, he said.

Australian academics welcomed Sir Gareth's appointment, recalling that he had told the House of Commons' science and technology committee last year that Britain's new RAE would provide "a much lighter touch and be less of a burden to academics and assessors".

Critics of the new system said that while the RAE assessed quality, provided public accountability and added incentive to boost research excellence and publication output, it was costly to run, at times controversial, and damaging to departments and universities that received low assessments.

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