RAE policy gets rethink

February 25, 2005

New Zealand's universities have won a battle to prevent state-sanctioned comparisons of research quality with the UK. A report says the level of hostility from universities towards institutional comparisons is so great as to outweigh any potential benefits.

Last year, the Tertiary Education Commission tried to include an international comparison in the first round of the performance-based research fund, which is broadly based on Britain's research assessment exercise. The commission feared that without further explanation, the raw results of the PBRF would be compared unfavourably with the RAE.

Universities argued that state endorsement of an unflattering comparison would amplify its adverse effects, while a favourable ranking would be dismissed as government bias. They successfully went to court to prevent its publication.

The commission agreed to consult with universities before it tried again, and the latest report is the result of that consultation. It means the banned comparison is unlikely ever to see the light of day. But the new report avoids a judgment on the merits of comparing research quality between countries.

Instead, it says that threats of further litigation and a likely refusal to co-operate in future research assessments mean that to attempt international rankings would "pose very serious downside risks" for the commission.

Consequently, the report's recommendations are "based not on what we believe is 'reasonable' activity for the commission to engage in, but rather, on consideration of how the sector stakeholders will act in response to what the TEC does".

A statement from the commission says the report confirmed its own inclinations.

While institutional rankings appear to be out of the question, the report leaves the door open for "benchmarking" of disciplines.

This should be done only in response to specific problems, and if possible without using PBRF data, the report says.

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