Panel games

January 3, 1997

BUSINESS AND MANAGEMENT STUDIES. "IT WAS one hell of an exercise," said Cary Cooper of UMIST, chairman of the business and management studies panel. "It took up a lot of academic time, but I think the whole thing was done superbly well by HEFCE. I was a panel member in 1992 and it was much better organised this time."

He admitted: "Of course we couldn't read all of the submissions - we had about 7,500 pieces of work - but all the panel members had time to sample work and were confident about giving assessments."

He feels that the grading system this year was much improved. "Last time there were far too many 3 grades, and there was a major, and unfair, gap between the upper levels of those in the 3 bracket and those in the lower level."

He also agreed with the notion of a 5-star: "We're competing globally in an international arena so it is important to single out world-class institutions. Before people laughed at British management research - they won't laugh any more."

He added: "On a personal level, I also feel that the assessment encourages a free transfer market. I believe that the work an individual does at an institution should stay with the institution, and not travel with the individual if he is head-hunted."

LABORATORY SCIENCES

RAE PANEL chairmen should meet and discuss ratings to help alleviate inequitable scoring between different panels, said Ingrid Allen, consultant neuropathologist at Queen's University Belfast and chair of the clinical laboratory sciences group.

To aid this process, definition of ratings - particularly 3a and 3b - need to be much more precise in the future. Professor Allen also called for the divisions of medicine to be re-examined. Researchers in fields such as medical genetics were assessed by different panels which made across-the-board comparisons difficult.

While a single grouping for medicine could be considered for the next RAE, she said it would need to recognise the small sub-groupings that often conducted cutting-edge research.

Professor Allen chaired the same panel in the last RAE. She said that no matter how much some disliked the RAE, she was convinced it had improved both the volume and quality of research since 1992.

CHEMISTRY

Universities have learned how to get the best out of the RAE by exploiting their existing research strengths, according to chemistry panel chairman Ray Baker of Merck Sharp and Dohme Research Laboratories.

Professor Baker said that standards had risen since 1992 because new universities in particular had improved research in selected areas.

The seven-point grading system made life easier for the chemistry panel. Professor Baker said he had found the previous five-point system too limiting, particularly when it came to the threes.

English language and literature

READING the heavy pile of written work submitted to the English language and literature research assessment panel was no easy task, said Martin Dodsworth, the panel chairman.

Professor Dodsworth, professor of English at Royal Holloway, the University of London, said he had reservations about the exercise: "If money for research is going to be distributed on a basis which involves discriminating against one institution or another, this is a reasonable way of doing it. But it cannot be very precise - certainly not in a subject like English."

He said the staff put forward for assessment had probably written between 6,000 and 7,000 books and articles between them and it was difficult to be sure that their research submissions were the most representative body of work.

But he said submissions this year had been more professional than in the last assessment. "The upside is that people are more focused on research," he said. "The downside is that they are focused on short-term research."

LAW

RICHARD CARD of De Montfort University, chairman of the law panel, questioned the effectiveness of the RAE in assessing a whole department's research culture.

"All staff are considered for teaching evaluations, but only certain members are put forward for research assessment - and yet the perception is that the whole department is being rated."

He is in no doubt that a transfer market exists, but argues against only assessing the research of members of staff appointed before a certain date. Such a move would simply penalise newer staff.

In his first RAE as a panel chair, Professor Card described the process as "terribly hard work" and said that his team did have difficulty obtaining some material.

He said standards were better than the 1992 exercise, partly because law departments had become more selective about which staff they submitted.

The new scale was effective, according to Professor Card, but he had reservations about the divided three ratings and the difficulty of obtaining a 5-star score. Only Oxford and Cambridge earned the top grading.

Scores for new universities rose substantially and he believed this RAE was an "important transitional period" for them.

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