MPs' report calls RAE 'damaging distraction'

April 26, 2002

The research assessment exercise has had positive effects, says the House of Commons science and technology select committee report. It has stimulated universities into managing their research and targeting areas of research excellence.

But it has also distorted research practice, ruined careers and contributed to the closure of university departments, the report says.

The committee was particularly concerned about universities excluding researchers from the exercise, a practice it described as "divisive and demoralising". It found one department, awarded a 5*, that had submitted fewer than 60 per cent of its staff for the RAE.

The report says: "Funding should reflect the actual amount of research and its quality over the whole department. Universities should have no incentive to omit any researchers." It also said that moving researchers or splitting and merging departments could improve ratings without improving quality.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England admitted to the committee that the RAE led to redundancies and stated that it believed that early retirement was "a positive part of a department's research strategy rather than the unfortunate end to a distinguished career".

Women in particular suffered under the RAE, were under-represented in the highest-rated departments and were disproportionately excluded from the exercise. "It has damaged staff careers, and it has distracted universities from their teaching, community and economic development roles. Higher education should encourage excellence in all these areas, not just research," the report says.

The committee scrutinised the assessment panels, and its report says it was unclear how members and chairs were selected. It calls for more support for panel members, noting that the 11-member chemistry panel found itself wading through 5,000 submissions. Hefce data showed that the panels that received the fewest submissions were awarded higher ratings.

The committee called on Hefce to work out the cost of the RAE and to demonstrate its value. The 1996 exercise has been estimated to have cost between £ million and £37 million.

The committee report says the RAE may discourage long-term, speculative research and stifle breakthroughs. Noting that much excellent science resulted from long fallow periods, it says that were James Watson and Francis Crick, who revealed the structure of DNA, working today, "these researchers could be branded as inactive and shunted off to teach first-year undergraduates".

The report says the RAE has contributed to the closure of departments, evidenced by a fall in submissions. For example, electronic and electrical engineering saw a 28 per cent drop in submissions between 1996 and 2001. Waning undergraduate interest in subjects such as chemistry had also led to department closures, in turn leading to less money for research. It calls for funding to be ring-fenced for research in areas of national priority.

The report goes on to say that teaching is not being accorded sufficient status. It calls for well paid, prestigious career positions for academics who are primarily teachers. But it dismisses teaching-only universities, saying high-quality teaching needs a high-quality research environment that exposes students to research careers and inspires staff to stay up to date.

It warns that £2.7 billion is needed for infrastructure and urges Hefce to introduce a recurrent funding stream.

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Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK

"The report supports our position that the decision not to fund fully the results of the RAE was demoralising."

Roderick Floud, president of UUK

"The recommendations place the onus on the government to provide the funds to safeguard and enhance university research."

Peter Cotgreave, director of Save British Science

"The uncertainty of the future of the RAE means it is hard for universities to plan."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers

"Universities cannot survive on shoestring budgets. The government must reform the RAE and put in place sustainable funding for world-class research."

The Department for Education and Skills

"The research assessment and funding system does need to be revisited, and the committee's report will be useful in that context."

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