NZ to consult on comparison

November 5, 2004

Another attempt is to be made to publish an international comparison of university research quality, six months after the last one was blocked by New Zealand's High Court.

The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) has chosen Australian company Allen Consulting to manage consultation on whether to undertake the comparison.

Kaye Turner, acting commission chair, told universities: "They will canvass widely around the issues of why an international comparison would be needed, how could this be achieved and, based on the first two questions, whether it should be attempted."

In April, the High Court decided that the commission, which ran New Zealand's equivalent of the research assessment exercise for the first time last year, should have told universities that it planned to compare its results with those of the UK. But after initially stating that universities could not stop a comparison so long as they were consulted in good faith, the commission has adopted a more careful approach.

Even so, Stuart McCutcheon, vice-chancellor of Victoria University and soon to take over from John Hood as vice-chancellor of Auckland University, said universities wanted the question of whether a comparison was needed to be decided before any discussion of methodologies.

The tender brief for the consultation process states that the objective of international comparisons is to "provide a wider context" for interpreting the research assessment results. It says any comparison should be "completed in a robust manner - so as to avoid less-informed analysis".

Professor McCutcheon said that in the six months since the results were released there had been scant interest in making international comparisons.

"The original argument was that a comparison was needed to guide interpretation of the results," he said. "That argument clearly no longer holds."

One source told The Times Higher that the banned comparison had placed New Zealand universities "about where you'd expect". Auckland, ranked top in the New Zealand research assessment, is believed to have come in just below the Russell Group of universities in the TEC comparison. Other attempts have been made to compare the system with the UK's RAE. One difficulty is that in New Zealand individuals, rather than departments, are measured, and the two systems have different criteria.

In a local attempt at a comparison, the proportion of academics in 5* British departments was scaled down by half to equate with the individuals who would have got A grades (for research of a world-class standard) in New Zealand. This placed Auckland at 15th in the UK, just behind Edinburgh University.

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