Hefce takes aim at RAE gameplaying

January 14, 2005

* Full list of sub-panel chairs * New guidelines confront gripes * Measures to tackle snobbery * No barriers for young staff

The Higher Education Funding Council for England this week published a guidance manual for its research assessment exercise panels, providing the first picture of how the exercise will look in 2008.

The controversial RAE ratings will determine the destination of billions of pounds of research funding, and universities will feel the impact of the 2008 RAE for several years after the results are announced.

Institutions will not receive their official instructions from Hefce on how to enter their research teams until this summer.

But the guidance document for panels, seen by The Times Higher before it was released to the new sub-panel chairs, will answer many important questions for university managers and researchers.

The new-look RAE was devised after a review in June 2002 by Sir Gareth Roberts, which explored how to reduce the gameplaying and administrative burden of the exercise, and how to create more financial security for universities.

More than half of staff submitted to the 2001 RAE were in departments given the top 5 and 5* ratings, leading to critical underfunding of many lower-rated departments. The instability that resulted led many to conclude that the RAE had reached its sell-by date.

Hefce hopes that the new system will address these problems, enabling the four funding councils to identify excellence in universities much more precisely.

The Times Higher has scrutinised the guidance to address the key questions facing academics:

  • Should I play the game by doing trendy research?

The guidance to panels stresses that the RAE should not be allowed to dictate the sort of research that is carried out in universities - although it should be the carrot that improves research quality overall.

Rama Thirunamachandran, director of research at Hefce, said: "People should not feel they have to focus on particular areas or types of research because of a misconceived view that it will gain them more points."

Any residual snobbery about the value of different types of research should not be allowed to influence the RAE. The guidance insists that chairs develop measures of excellence that "are sufficiently wide as to capture all types of research, including practice-based research, applied research, basic/strategic research".

Dianne Berry, pro vice-chancellor for research at Reading University and chair of the psychology sub-panel, said this was critical for her discipline, where "research ranges from detailed neuroscience through to very practical, applied social science-related questions".

Rick Rylance, professor of English at Exeter University and chair of the English language and literature sub-panel, said: "I don't quite know how we will manage the weighting of different individuals, but the English panel will certainly be eager to ensure that everyone is treated fairly."

Although Hefce has yet to confirm the membership of its sub-panels, Dr Thirunamachandran hinted that, where appropriate, the panels would contain people from industry or the users of research to provide an external perspective.

  • Am I in trouble if my research does not fit neatly into any of the sub-panels?

Panels have been asked to pay special attention to submissions from researchers who are collaborating across different disciplines, and those from individuals working at the boundary of two or more disciplines.

The guidance notes that it might not be fair to apply "benchmark standards of excellence" to new interdisciplinary fields in the same way as to established disciplines.

It suggests that the main panels may want to secure extra advice from other sub-panels or from specialist advisers - perhaps other interdisciplinary researchers.

John Feather, head of the department for information sciences at Loughborough and chair of the library and information management sub-panel, said that making arrangements for interdisciplinary research would be one of his priorities.

He welcomed Hefce's plans to ask institutions to give an early indication of the sort of submissions they might make, so that panels can be alerted to potential problem areas or subjects on which they might need to seek additional expertise.

  • Will I be overlooked if I am at the start of my research career?

One of the key principles behind the new RAE is that there should be no barrier to submitting early-career researchers who have not accumulated a big publications list. Dr Thirunamachandran said: "They are an important part of the department's profile."

He explained: "In considering each submission, panels will be asked to look at the sustainability of a department as a whole. If there is not a reasonable distribution of staff across age bands, it will suggest a sustainability issue."

Will hiring a big hitter secure a top rating for my department?

In the 2001 RAE, departments received a grade that described the whole department's performance. This sparked accusations of gameplaying, with institutions varying the number of staff they submitted to secure a grade.

Hefce now admits that within the grade brackets "quality and performance were not necessarily uniform". Now every person submitted will be assessed and each counts as one full-time employee.

Dr Thirunamachandran said the system would be much fairer, enabling institutions to submit whoever they wanted and not worry too much about tactics.

He said: "There may not be significant financial gain in parachuting in a big name, as they will count as only one part of the profile."

He added: "The senior management of universities need to think very carefully about their financial strategies before they go all out to get senior people. They cannot shift the whole department's profile as they would have done in the past."

What if research isn't my thing?

Unlike in previous RAEs, the panels will not collect any information about non-submitted staff.

Dr Thirunamachandran said that Hefce was well aware that research was only one of the core missions of a university, and that teaching, knowledge transfer and widening access were equally important occupations.

He said: "There should be no expectation that every member of staff should be engaged in research: that would be adverse for the higher education system as a whole."



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