Peers to oversee new RAE system

December 8, 2006

Government abandons 'crude mono-metrics' in its proposed research quality system, Anthea Lipsett reports

Academics' research quality will continue to be judged in part by their peers, it emerged this week.

As The Times Higher went to press, the Government was due to confirm that it would replace the research assessment exercise after 2008 with a system of metrics - in which a department's research quality is judged on the basis of specific measurements such as research income and postgraduate student numbers, rather than on the subjective judgment of RAE specialist panels.

But it is understood that the new system, which will involve a complex "basket" of metrics that have yet to be determined, will also be overseen by panels of academic experts. This concession follows intense lobbying by vice-chancellors and lecturers for a continued element of peer involvement.

The new system will be implemented over five years after the 2008 RAE, and it will determine the multibillion-pound research budget administered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The changes are due to be confirmed as part of the Treasury's Pre-Budget Report this week.

The announcement that metrics were to replace the traditional peer review-led RAE was published in the Next Steps document that accompanied the 2006 Budget unveiled in March.

A consultation in June issued by Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, outlined alternatives to the RAE using metrics based solely on a department's research income. This was rejected by universities, which favoured the use of several measures, including research outputs.

The new system will treat science and arts subjects differently, but it was unclear this week how the expert panels would work and what powers they would have to choose or to vary the metrics used or to override metrics outcomes.

Lecturers and vice-chancellors welcomed the retention of "peer involvement". The University and College Union said it was pleased that the Government decided "to abandon its crude mono-metrics approach and to envisage a greater role for academic peer review".

Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London and chair of the Russell Group, said: "Any choice of metrics must have the input of the academic community. Peer review is tremendously important, and we need peer involvement. We're ready to work with the funding council on deciding which metrics will work."

Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University and chair of the 1994 Group, said: "A revised RAE should be based on a basket of appropriate and robust measures of research quality, with the greatest weight placed on indicators of research output."

The Government was due to announce separate funding for applied research in the block grant, or quality-related funding, that universities receive based on their RAE results.

Tim Bradshaw, head of the Confederation of British Industry's Innovation, Science and Technology Group, said the CBI proposed two streams of funding, one for curiosity research and another for user-focused research, to help combat the difficulties faced by applied researchers. He said the user-focused funding stream should take 20 to 50 per cent of the total budget. "It's got to be meaningful rather than a little initiative that's nice to have but won't actually change the culture."

Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, representing post-1992 institutions, said modern universities were at the forefront of applied research and would be very interested, in principle, in a specific funding stream.

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