Clampdown on RAE

July 24, 1998

THE higher education funding councils are to crack down on manipulation of the research assessment exercise by institutes that have identified how to optimise their research ratings. However there are concerns that the measures do not go far enough.

Changes to the next RAE, which is due to take place in 2001, were made in a surprise announcement this week. But key problems - such as whether departments should submit a minimum proportion of staff to achieve the highest rating - have been left for a long-term consultation. At present, a department can submit only its top researchers to maximise its chances of getting a high score.

John Mulvey, of the pressure group Save British Science, said: "(The changes) are OK as far as they go but disappointing as they don't go very far."

One target of the changes is the academic transfer market, in which an institute buys up leading researchers to boost its RAE rating. The RAE will be amended to allow departments to submit the work of researchers who leave up to 12 months before the submission date.

The funding councils will also investigate the transfer market as part of their fundamental consultation.

Other changes are designed to make the RAE more transparent and consistent. All the members of the assessment panels will be named along with the bodies that nominated them, and umbrella groups and perhaps a roving panel of experts will be established to promote consistency.

The amendments were made following overwhelming support for certain changes from the 300 higher education institutions and other organisations that responded to the RAE consultation. The funding councils had expected to go through a second consultation exercise before announcing firm decisions on the next RAE.

But some issues were contentious. Respondents were split over whether RAE submissions should be published on the Internet, for example. This would allow low-ranking institutions to see what a high-ranking submission looked like, and it could help to identify whether institutions are creating phantom departments for staff with poor research records. However, Internet publication could also be used to identify which staff to poach. This issue will be examined further as part of the continuing consultation.

The funding councils use the RAE to assess how much money each university receives for research. Panels of experts assess each of 69 subject areas every four to five years.

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