Opinion: A retrograde step

The REF plans are bad news for new universities and promise to negate the fairness and sense apparent in the 2008 RAE, argues Ian M. Marshall

October 14, 2009

This year’s distribution of research assessment exercise funding suggested a more clear-eyed vision of the UK’s research world. Delivering good work mattered a bit more and the name of the institution meant a bit less.

All those academics in new universities who had dedicated themselves to high-quality research work – even without the gold-plated guarantee of funding – were vindicated to a degree. Their work was not just a labour of love, but mattered enough to share some of the funding pot. New universities’ pockets of excellence, their work supporting regional regeneration and their knack of attracting funding from the private sector, the European Union and other sources were finally recognised.

The danger of the proposals for the research excellence framework, which will replace the RAE, is that this clarity and these advances will be lost.

We always realised that even winning a small fraction of funding from traditional universities would lead to a determined response, that older institutions would fight harder than ever to reclaim the cash, and that new universities would need to do even better themselves. On the plus side, this heightened sense of competition should have been good for everyone.

However, the REF proposals promise only to push new universities and their many pockets of excellence back into the shadows.

For example, the proposed submission timescale of autumn 2012 is far too short. It does not give new universities enough time to prove the benefits of the increased funding from RAE 2008. An important change has been made in distribution, so surely it needs to be evaluated properly?

In autumn 2012, the RAE funding will have been in place for slightly more than three years. But it appears to take between six and nine months these days just to recruit a key researcher to a vacancy: that leaves about two years to hopefully see the benefits of increased income and research-student numbers, plus a pipeline of high-quality outputs.

I have not seen a huge increase in the number of advertisements in Times Higher Education for UK-based professors, readers or other research posts recently, which probably means that most institutions are holding fire, waiting for the “cuts” most political parties pre-announced at their recent annual conferences. That leaves only one option for new universities: building internal capability and capacity, which does not happen in three years.

The REF’s planned focus on “critical mass” will work against the new universities, too. They may have the quality but not the quantity to get noticed, and therefore, some of the best work carried out in a particular field could end up being dismissed.

The plan to reduce the number of sub-panels to assess subject areas would exacerbate this issue. There are some very strange bedfellows in the REF sub-panels with quite different research methodologies, such as the proposal to group together four RAE 2008 units of assessment – dentistry, allied health professions, pharmacy and nursing. Somehow, this combined unit will have to reach a consensus about what constitutes “good” research. The variation in RAE-based research-funding averages for these units of assessment suggests they already have differing views.

The merged unit will also have to gain a clear understanding of the meaning of critical mass. Combining these four units of assessment will increase the average size of submissions quite considerably, so potentially large (100+) submissions are likely to dominate. For example, the average submission size in the combined unit of assessment will be almost twice that of the previous RAE for nursing.

Some of the new universities that did well in RAE 2008 may find it a different challenge in larger REF groupings. The gap between large and small submissions has just become huge.

Despite proving in the pilot that citation analysis is unworkable, the REF plans to push ahead with it, punishing several areas by requiring them to prove their citations against a yet-to-be-procured system. This will involve much more work for staff and a greater strain on those universities with smaller resources. In any case, the citation database has not yet been specified or purchased, and there is the very real prospect of it and the validation system not being ready in time.

Every league table and ranking in education has proven the same point ¬– that systems and criteria make or break reputations. It would be a backward step if the fairness and sense apparent in the RAE 2008 were followed by a system that negated previous advances.

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