Elite urge shift to light-touch audit

January 6, 2006

Research universities want mini-reviews to replace the RAE but post-92s are against. Anthea Lipsett reports

Research-led universities believe that the 2008 research assessment exercise should be the last for at least ten years, and propose instead a series of light-touch mini-reviews every four years.

The proposals come from a working group that represents both the Russell Group and the 94 Group, which together employ the vast majority of researchers across the sector. The working party is considering what should replace the RAE, and it is likely to set the agenda for the emerging debate on how research should be judged after 2008.

While universities are busy preparing for the final assessment criteria for the 2008 RAE, which will be confirmed early next month, funding council officials are keen to establish a future plan well before the 2008 assessment results are published.

Stuart Palmer, pro vice-chancellor for research at Warwick University, who is leading the working party, said: "The approach given most favour is to use 2008 as the reference point because it's going to be a very intensive and very careful look at research activities across the whole spectrum, then every so many years have a mini-review to update the results of 2008.

"If people are still interested in quality-related research and two streams of research funding in 12 to 15 years, you would have another full-blown exercise," he said.

A mini-review held every four years would be much less labour intensive than a full RAE, according to Professor Palmer. Assessment panels would meet, but they would not have to digest the numbers of academic papers and other output that a fully fledged exercise would entail.

He said: "This is the suggestion that gathered most support and that we are now looking at in most detail. We will see how we could develop a system or approach that much later could take place every four years, using the 2008 outcomes as a reference point, that is acceptable to the community and would give rigorous results."

The 2008 RAE will be the largest assessment to date, costing the funding councils millions of pounds to run, involving hundreds of academics as judges on assessment panels, and taking up the time and resources of university managers and academics preparing submissions to the exercise.

The working group has looked at a range of scenarios for replacing the RAE.

It is working on the assumption that the dual-support funding streams from funding councils and research councils will continue to exist but is taking into account the full economic costing reforms that could reduce cash from the funding councils over time.

"These range from a simple metrics-based system to slightly tinkering with the present system," Professor Palmer said. "The funding council is convinced that we need to carry out this review and bring forward a proposed mechanism prior to the 2008 RAE."

The higher education funding councils were also looking at alternatives, he said.

"Metrics will not do," he added. "A simple metrics-based system across the whole spectrum of subjects is not feasible. Chemistry could use metrics for peer review but there aren't many subjects that would support that."

New universities do not like the proposals, arguing that they will skew funds permanently to the current research elite.

Michael Driscoll, chairman of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities and vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, said: "The current distribution based on the RAE is the prime cause of funding inequality in the sector, and the Government will need to take steps to address this after 2008.

"These proposals are clearly an attempt to pre-empt any review, but their net effect will be to lock funding into the current status quo for the next 20 years.

"They are anti-competitive and highly protectionist of current market share and will do little to develop the research capacity in higher education Britain needs."

Rama Thirunamachandran, research director for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said that it would be "highly desirable" for the funding councils to work with the sector to come up with an alternative system before the 2008 exercise was carried out.

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk

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