A government working group will recommend a reprieve for the next research assessment exercise despite opposition from some vice-chancellors. Anna Fazackerley reports.
The 2008 research assessment exercise is set to escape the axe after weeks of battling in Whitehall, The Times Higher can reveal.
The Government is to publish a consultation document setting out proposals for a radical overhaul of the £1 billion-a-year research funding system next Wednesday, a month behind schedule.
The working group in charge of the consultation, chaired by David Eastwood, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and Sir Alan Wilson, director-general for higher education at the Department for Education and Skills, is unlikely to be too prescriptive about exactly how research should be measured. But insiders said this week that the document would end calls for an immediate axeing of the 2008 RAE.
The future of the forthcoming exercise has caused fierce division among vice-chancellors, with about one third calling for it to be dropped and the rest insisting that such a move would be disastrous at this late stage.
One high-profile vice-chancellor told The Times Higher : "The information I've had is that we have seen off the Treasury's attempts to get rid of the 2008 RAE. It had listened to just two or three vice-chancellors and it didn't expect the opposition it got on this."
He added: "It is absolutely clear that the DfES was never behind this."
Rumours of the working party's intentions have been received with delight by many university heads.
Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, one of the institutions that would lose most from a switch to a metrics system, said: "It's definitely good news. It would have been incredibly destabilising to drop the 2008 exercise when we don't have a replacement ready. We can do it, but it will take time."
But other vice-chancellors were disappointed that the Treasury was not going to scrap the RAE.
David Melville, vice-chancellor of Kent University, said: "I'm happy to accept that the majority of vice-chancellors want it to go ahead and that was the test the Treasury set. However, I'm disappointed that that is the case."
Westminster insiders said this week that the consultation would make some concessions to those who campaigned for the 2008 RAE to be scrapped.
One vice-chancellor said: "I understand it [the consultation] will discuss the extent to which some panels might wish to use metrics more [in 2008]."
Such a move would be controversial - and could fail to please either faction in the debate.
Ian Leslie, pro vice-chancellor at Cambridge University, said: "There is a difficulty in saying you are running the exercise but are changing the rules."
Professor Melville queried what such a change would achieve. He said: "That won't reduce the burden on institutions or the cost of the exercise. It needs a radical overhaul."
A leading scientist at one of the big research universities said: "As far as I know, the RAE panels don't know anything about this. If Hefce is going to go back and say the criteria have changed it could well face a legal challenge."
A further nettle for the RAE working group to grasp is the length of time that the 2008 exercise should be used to inform funding decisions.
Some university heads predict that the Government will want to push for the new model to come into play a year after the exercise.
But Professor Crossick warned: "It has got to drive funding for at least three years. If all this planning is for one year's funding, that will be an incredible waste of public money."
Whatever the details, the consultation looks certain to provoke a heated debate. University chiefs are broadly agreed that the RAE needs to go after 2008, but each will have an eye on protecting his or her own budget.
One influential vice-chancellor said: "There are going to be some fairly bracing arguments. The models people have in mind vary a lot."