RAE rejig skirts cash plight

October 10, 2003

Plans to replace the research assessment exercise ignore fundamental problems with the current funding model for universities, say academics and business leaders.

Responses to Sir Gareth Roberts' proposals on reform of the RAE, published in May, show that while there is broad support for plans to replace the RAE, there is widespread feeling that they do not address the real issues.

Respondents complained that the Higher Education Funding Council for England-run consultation - which was a pro forma agree or disagree paper - failed to address the basic problems of the balance between the two streams of the dual-funding system. Under this system, cash is distributed through Hefce, based on RAE grades, and through the funding councils, on the basis of bids for specific projects.

The Royal Society is believed to be preparing an in-depth critique of "the fundamental issues surrounding university research".

And this week Universities UK released its responses to the RAE, dual-support and postgraduate training consultations, saying: "Mechanisms for how research is funded and assessed need to be considered as interlinked, rather than as separate processes amenable to analysis through a series of consultations."

The lobby group Save British Science agreed. It said: "The balance between different funding streams has become so skewed that the problems of the science base will not be solved by tinkering with assessment procedures and attempting to divorce these procedures from the funding decisions that (in reality) rest on them."

Last week, the Confederation for British Industry accused the government of a lack of joined-up thinking and bundled its response to five separate consultations into one document.

Sir Gareth's proposed system would see a six-yearly research quality assessment for the most competitive research and a light-touch research capacity assessment for less research-intensive departments. Both would also face a light-touch assessment halfway through.

The outcome would be a research quality profile resulting from assessing each piece of work submitted, with departments given ratings of 1* to 3*.

The scores of individual academics would not be made public.

UUK opposed the mid-point monitoring, saying it would only duplicate existing processes and hamper institutional autonomy in planning. It strongly disagreed with separate treatment for less research-intensive institutions, saying: "This would undermine the prospects of promising units, threaten the equality of institutional opportunity and lead to ossification of the system."

It also called on the funding council to make a "commitment to openness" regarding funding available before the entries were submitted.

Lecturers' representatives criticised the proposals for failing to take a holistic approach to teaching and research.

The Learning and Teaching Support Network criticised the plans because they did not "set themselves in the overall context of higher education or seek potential synergies with other strategic goals", for example improving teaching quality.

The LTSN said that the proposals failed to "effectively address the importance of research dissemination, particularly to inform teaching and learning".

Cliff Allan, director of the LTSN, said: "The key feature of teaching in higher education is that it should be informed by research. The combined effect of the Roberts report and the white paper will be to drive a wedge between these two major functions, with a loss of the vital academic identity to institutions, departments and disciplinary communities. It is time for joined-up thinking."

Individual university responses address pragmatic points about the running of future exercises. The proposal to give panels guidelines on the expected proportion of 3*, 2* and 1* ratings was universally condemned.

One response states: "This suggestion would defeat the entire purpose of peer review. The rationing of the number of 3*s within a subject will cause particular problems if one or two large institutions could justify being awarded all or a majority of them. By implication, small submissions are likely to perform better than larger ones."

David Wallace, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University, pointed out that fixing these proportions would give no indication of where a department stood on the international stage.

He said: "It's a step in the wrong direction. We need to step back from the individual consultations and think about the dual-support system as a whole. I support moving to full economic costing, but it doesn't make any sense to get a grant from a research council when the full economic costs are not included."

Hefce said it was analysing all 300 responses received from across the UK and would publish its report by the end of the year.

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