'Don't ration top-rate grade'

October 24, 2003

Universities and colleges have objected to government proposals to set in advance the proportion of top grades a subject can receive for research.

Proposals in Sir Gareth Roberts' review of research assessment could result, for example, in biological research - widely recognised as internationally excellent -being allocated a similar number of high-ranking centres to nursing research, which has yet to achieve the same recognition.

Respondents to the review rejected prior control over the distribution of ratings. One Russell Group institution said: "This suggestion would defeat the purpose of peer review. The rationing of the number of [top grades] within a subject would cause particular problems if one or two large institutions could justify being awarded all or a majority of them."

The funding bodies have pledged to take seriously the criticism and the rejection of the suggestion for a light-touch assessment halfway through each six-year research assessment cycle.

More than 300 responses were received from higher education institutions, other stakeholder bodies and individuals in response to the consultation held by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Northern Ireland Department for Education and Learning.

Respondents agreed that:

  • Research assessment should be conducted through peer review on a disciplinary basis
  • Judgement should be of research quality
  • Quality assessments should focus on the work of a department rather than individuals
  • Continuity of ratings is desirable
  • Assessment should include applied and practice-based research, emerging disciplines and interdisciplinary research
  • There should be consistency between panels
  • Research should be assessed every six years.

But respondents were divided on other issues. The proposed three-track assessment process was condemned as unduly complex and burdensome. They also questioned the bureaucracy behind demonstrating research competences through institutions' research strategies, dissemination of outcomes, staff development and equal-opportunities policies.

The funding bodies are conducting a full analysis of responses.

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