London, 23 Sep 2004
We published a Report on the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in April 2002 and decided to conduct a follow-up inquiry in the light of Sir Gareth Roberts's review of the RAE and the subsequent decisions made by the Higher Education Funding Councils, announced in February 2004, for the next RAE to be held in 2008. We conclude that many of the revisions to the RAE are positive, in particular the introduction of a quality profile for each academic department to replace the 7-point scale, which will be fairer and will help, although not eliminate, "game-playing" by universities. Also, the new panel and sub-panel structure should improve consistency between panels and the assessment of interdisciplinary research. We believe that the Funding Councils are wrong to have shied away from more radical change. We advocate different assessment routes as a means of reducing the bureaucratic burden on higher education institutions and the workload of panels. In many disciplines external research income is a good indicator of research quality; in other cases there will be appropriate metrics. These should increasingly be used to replace the deliberations of panels. Concerns have been expressed that it may not be possible for the Funding Bodies to maintain the confidentiality of assessments of individual researchers in the face of court action. We conclude that the Funding Bodies should pre-empt any legal challenge and publish these data. We believe this will improve transparency and would help to highlight the important non-research activities of academics.
There have been calls for the next RAE to be delayed or abandoned. While we would like our recommendations to be implemented as soon as possible, we believe that quality-related research funding is necessary and that it should be based on up to date data. The next RAE should go ahead in 2008 but no time should be wasted in developing more radical solutions for the scheduled RAE in 2014. Another concern is the Higher Education Funding Council for England's delay in publishing details of how the quality profile will be used to calculate funding. At present, it is asking higher education institutions to play the game without a rule book. We believe that the funding formula applied should not further increase the selectivity of research funding.
The RAE cannot be viewed in isolation from other areas of higher education funding policy. A problem has been that the RAE, conceived as a mechanism for directing the Funding Councils' research funds to the best institutions, has become too important and has unbalanced universities' priorities. We argue that financial incentives to improve quality in all areas of higher education should be introduced.
It is also important to recognise that the next RAE will take place against the background of other fundamental changes to higher education, including the introduction of a market through the charging of variable fees. The RAE may also need to be reviewed in the light of the effects of those wider changes, not least with respect to the viability of university departments in core subjects, potential further department closures and the geographical pattern of such closures. The operation of the RAE has been detrimental to the provision of science and engineering in the UK. There is no evidence that the changes that are proposed will not continue to compromise this provision.