UK academics could have their research assessed alongside scholars from Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong under plans being considered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has instructed the council to investigate whether it would be possible to include other countries and foreign universities in future research excellence framework exercises.
The idea was suggested to Mr Willetts by David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, who told Times Higher Education that assessing UK research alongside work done outside the country would “give you real international comparability”.
A more international REF “would be much more effective than the current exercise. It would carry more weight,” he said. Expanding the exercise would also lead to efficiencies and cost savings, he added.
Professor Eastwood envisaged an exercise jointly run by the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong (Hefce is already helping Hong Kong to set up its own research assessment exercise).
In this scenario, the assessment panels that judge the quality of scholars’ research would be “reflective” of the number of academics in each country, he said.
Research quality would be assessed by these joint panels but it would be left up to individual governments to decide how the results translated into funding, Professor Eastwood added.
Asked whether the US could join a future joint exercise, he said that research funding there was not distributed in the same way as in the four countries mentioned.
But if a joint REF was developed, “then there wouldn’t be anything to stop groups of institutions buying in to a quality assessment service”, he anticipated, as long as they did “high quality” research.
David Sweeney, director for research, innovation and skills at Hefce, said the council hoped to come to a view on the proposal by the end of the year.
The primary benefit of an international REF would be the extra information provided about the UK’s research performance, he said, which would complement international research reviews already conducted by Hefce.
After the announcement by Mr Willetts on 3 April, it was suggested on social media that the proposal could open the door to Scotland remaining part of the REF if it elects to become independent this September.
But Dr Sweeney said that the new investigation had “nothing to do with Scottish independence” because it was already assumed that “in the event of independence the opportunity [for Scotland] to take part [in the rest of the UK’s REF] would be available”. He did reveal that countries and bodies “from Europe and elsewhere” had requested to join the UK’s exercise.
Speaking about the idea last week, Mr Willetts explained that “it might be quite handy if you’re in Hong Kong to get some sense of ‘How good is our medical school? What is the quality of the economics we do here?’ for your university to be assessed as part of the REF.”
But any countries that joined would have to cover their costs, he said, and there were also “potential risks to the effectiveness and integrity of the national process” that would have to be investigated.