Metrics hit stone wall

July 21, 2006

Research-led institutions are gearing up to shun the RAE's successor, after voicing doubts about the merits of the exercise, reports Anthea Lipsett

Research-led universities will shun the Government's proposals to replace the current peer review-led research assessment exercise with a simple metrics-based system.

Both the Russell Group and the 1994 Group have serious concerns about the metrics proposed in the Government's Next Steps document and the recent RAE consultation.

Stuart Palmer, pro vice-chancellor for research at Warwick University and chair of the Russell Group's research group, told The Times Higher : "One or two universities have been hankering after a simple metrics-driven exercise but overall the Russell Group is opposed."

Professor Palmer said that although the RAE already measured things such as PhD numbers and grants, peer review remained crucial to assessing research performance.

The Russell Group wanted to see metrics managed by a peer-review panel, which would give the academic community confidence in the system, he said.

The group was also concerned that research in science, technology, engineering and medicine would be judged separately from that in the social sciences, arts and humanities.

"What we have at the moment is to a large extent a view across the community," he said.

"A 5* history department can be seen as having the same standing as a 5* business school and, if we go for the process proposed in the Next Steps document, we will lose that," Professor Palmer said.

Using quantitative measures as a basis for allocating research money, as proposed under a metrics system, without also applying a judgment of research quality is a major cause of concern.

"We'll have a metrics-based system that will not tell you anything about the quality. We'll have to have a different exercise to give the quality profile." Professor Palmer said.

Sir Lawrence Freedman, vice-principal (research) at King's College London, said: "It's a retrograde step to go back to a two-cultures approach."

The Russell Group is considering its own two alternatives to the RAE. One involves further metrics to make the job simpler for panels. The other would use the results of the 2008 RAE as the benchmark and any significant deviation from that would trigger an assessment exercise.

Steve Smith, chair-elect of the 1994 Group, said: "We're opposed, too. We need to be sure why we are doing it. The correlation isn't great at subject or department level.

"We're not sure the reason is to redistribute QR funding more cheaply."

Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, declared his support for metrics this week. "I'm a big fan," he told the Commons Education and Skills Select Committee.

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