MPs consider RAE review

November 25, 2005

MPs are considering launching an inquiry into the future of the research assessment exercise amid concerns that new universities are treated unfairly.

Roberta Blackman-Woods, Labour MP for Durham and a member of the House of Commons Education Select Committee, also urged the Government to instigate a root-and-branch review of the assessment.

Dr Blackman-Woods, who holds a visiting social policy chair at Northumbria University and is a tutor at St John's College, Durham University, asked the education committee to undertake an inquiry to generate debate about the future of the exercise before the results of the 2008 RAE are unveiled.

She said: "We need to be clear about what the RAE's future is.

Does the current system, for example, produce an uneven playing ground for newer universities?

"A number of universities have said to me that they are not completely happy with the current system. If you are an active researcher in a department that is low graded, the system might be unfair on you."

She added: "It might be better if the research money was channelled through the research councils.

"The Government did look into the RAE two years ago, but we need a root-and-branch review of how universities are funded for research."

Reforms in place for the 2008 RAE will create a much tougher grading system for university departments so as to distinguish the best researchers. The move has prompted concerns that the higher education funding councils will skew block research grants even further to the elite research institutions.

This is likely to mean less money for lower rated departments, found predominantly in new universities. More than £1 billion in research funding is allocated to UK universities annually on the basis of the results of the assessment.

Ed Hughes, RAE manager, said: "The 2008 RAE was put into place following an extensive review by Sir Gareth Roberts and consultation with the higher education sector and other stakeholders, in which 96 per cent of respondents were in favour of an expert review process. The RAE is open to all higher education institutions and is designed to recognise and reward research excellence wherever it takes place."

He added: "It is up to the four funding bodies to decide whether there is going to be a review of the RAE after 2008."

Despite reforms in place for the 2008 exercise, Lord May, president of the Royal Society, has also warned the academic community not to become so absorbed in preparing for the 2008 exercise that it loses sight of what should be done afterwards.

He called for an overhaul of the entire dual-support system for research - in which the research councils and funding councils distribute separate funding streams - arguing that it had become increasingly bureaucratic.

If Dr Blackman-Woods gets agreement from other members of the education committee, it will be the first time that the committee has launched an investigation into the RAE.

MPs on the Commons Science Select Committee held an inquiry into the RAE last year.

jessica.shepherd@thes.co.uk

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