'Donkey leaders to blame' for RAE failure

April 5, 2002

The research assessment exercise must be overhauled, a parliamentary report will say next week.

Ian Gibson, who chairs the House of Commons select committee on science and technology, began his committee's investigation a day before the results of the 2001 RAE were published. The report will be finalised on Wednesday.

Speaking to The THES in advance of a speech to a conference in Greenwich on Thursday, Dr Gibson said: "The RAE needs serious modifications. It shouldn't be so frequent as it has been. It puts the academic community under tremendous pressure, and I wonder whether it's worth the results. Improving departments should be able to ask for assessment when they are ready."

Dr Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North, laid into the funding council for failing to fully fund the results of the RAE and called its staff "donkeys". He will share the conference platform with the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Sir Howard Newby.

He said: "It is quite clearly not on that people should shake themselves up and get no money for it. It seems to me that Hefce should have seen it coming. There should have been more money earmarked for it. Hefce should have been making strong representations to the government.

"It is the leaders in higher education who are weak and individual academics who are strong. They are lions being led by donkeys."

Under the select committee's plans, institutions that perform well would be excluded from the exercise and those that seek to improve could choose when to be assessed.

The RAE is due to be reviewed early this summer, after the science review being undertaken by the Treasury and the Office of Science and Technology has reported.

The committee's model is one of many that will be considered by Hefce. Other versions include measuring interactions with the community, totting up an institution's external research income and looking at citations ratings.

Sir Howard told The THES : "There will be an RAE, but we need to have another look at it. First, the RAE is used to discriminate across a seven-point scale, but we fund only four of them. There is a ceiling effect - many departments have nowhere to go and this has incentive effects. We also need to look at the RAE and the ways in which we can fund excellence in areas other than research."

Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, will also address the conference. He said: "I think the RAE is finished. It has been found guilty of the cardinal sin of embarrassing the Treasury.

"We could take all clinical research away from Hefce. Why should Hefce fund nursing research when it doesn't fund nursing? We could take money out of the RAE and give it to the research councils for projects. We could use external income - say, for every pound you generate, we will give you 80 pence.

"The amount of money that the RAE generates for most universities is piddling. The RAE gives recognition to... staff and the university, and that is more important. It is all about fortune and glory."

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