New Zealand research assessment delayed again

Second postponement in as many years acknowledges Covid’s ‘major impact’ on research efforts

August 5, 2022
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New Zealand has postponed its research assessment exercise for a second time after universities sought a reprieve for their Covid-afflicted workforce.

Education minister Chris Hipkins has delayed the quality evaluation for the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) by 12 months to 2026, with the results to be published in 2027.

The move follows the government’s 2020 decision to shift the assessment exercise from 2024 to 2025. The latest rescheduling comes after Universities New Zealand (UNZ) raised concerns about the damage Covid-19 had inflicted on academic careers.

“It’s had such a major impact on research activity,” UNZ chief executive Chris Whelan told Times Higher Education. “Early career researchers in particular…have been significantly interrupted in getting their research portfolios going.

“We’re very keen to make sure that our academics have a chance to better reflect the quality of the research they’re doing. [The delay] gives everyone a bit more time to present themselves in a better light.”

The Tertiary Education Union said the exercise should be scrapped entirely. “This delay once again begs the question: is PBRF fit for purpose?” said national secretary Sandra Grey.

“PBRF is designed for a perfect world that doesn’t exist and is therefore incapable of dealing with extraordinary circumstances. We saw it with the Christchurch earthquakes and we’re seeing it again now. It’s time to stop adding more bandages and lance the boil instead.”

The PBRF is New Zealand’s second biggest centrally administered tertiary education funding stream, allocating NZ$315 million (£163 million) a year. Funding distribution is based on annual measurements of institutional PhD completions and external research earnings, together with an assessment of research quality that is normally conducted every six years.

Like similar exercises elsewhere, the PBRF is unpopular with many New Zealand academics who say it amplifies their already excessive workloads for little return.

In 2021, the government unveiled a raft of changes, including broadening the definition of research excellence and boosting the weightings attached to research by Māori and Pacific Islanders, to increase their share of the funding.

Consultations with the university sector revealed support for changes to the criteria defining early career academics and the “extraordinary circumstances” that interrupted people’s research. But many measures attracted only lukewarm backing or outright opposition.

UNZ warned of “unintended negative consequences” of using measures other than research outputs to judge excellence, and of using a merit-driven research fund as a mechanism to improve equity.

Nevertheless, Mr Whelan did not support the union’s call to jettison the assessment exercise. He said that while staff understandably considered it an “imposition”, it involved little more work than most academics typically devoted to their CVs.

“It’s the only mechanism we’ve got that allows for a story around the quality of our research system, to be able to justify the kind of investment our government makes in university research,” he said.

The new delay has unleashed a string of changes, with academics now to be judged on eight years’ research rather than six as originally planned. The assessment period will guide funding allocations for seven years through to 2032.

Mr Hipkins has directed the Tertiary Education Commission to “backdate” the exercise’s results by a year, so that new funding rates – including the increased weightings for Māori and Pacific Island research – can take effect from the beginning of 2026.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Talk about flogging a dead horse. PBRF is fundamentally broken and past its use-by date, yet people like Whelan insist it's the "only mechanism we've got." How visionary! Look at the studies of the recent REF exercise (upon which the PBRF is based) and where that looks headed, and it's evident that something like PBRF requires a dramatic overhaul. If the version of PBRF currently in the works rolls out (with its minor tweaks) tomorrow, it's already outdated; in 2026, it'll be entirely obsolete.

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