THE picture of research excellence in universities risks being distorted by a growing band of "in the know" institutions, which optimise their research ratings through creative "game playing" at the expense of others, research from Warwick Business School suggests.
Ameen Talib, a doctoral researcher at the business school, has developed mathematical models to show how universities can maximise their research ratings, and research funding, through careful strategic management of their submissions to the research assessment exercise.
But universities appear to be employing the strategies at dramatically varying levels across the sector, Mr Talib's anecdotal evidence shows. The 1997 McNay Report on the RAE for the Higher Education Funding Council found that new universities were disadvantaged because they were less familiar with the RAE rules, so were less able to bend them. A gulf appears to be emerging between those institutions that play the game, and those that do not. Mr Talib, who is collecting data on different practices between institutions, said that there is a "fine line" between acceptable strategies and unacceptable manipulation.
Responses to a THES article last week on alleged RAE abuse show a high level of confusion over where the line should be:
* One academic complained that lower-rated researchers were being turned into teaching fellows to boost the perceived proportion of research-active staff submitted.
* Another said that the teaching loads of research-active staff were being dramatically cut, to the detriment of students. One part-time lecturer complained that students could go through university without being taught by a research-active member of staff, as "invisible" part-timers were not categorised as staff.
* Fear was expressed over the make-up of the assessment panels. "You can influence the outcome of the assessment by getting your man or woman on the panel," said one. "The assessors will never have time to read the papers."
* A researcher from a new university was concerned that assessment panel members tended to be researchers from old universities, with their own closed culture.
* Concern was raised about the power wielded by the editors of academic journals. As published work is fundamental to the assessment, one academic joked: "You can get your staff on the editorial boards of the main journals and use their influence to smooth the path to publication for others." Another warned: "Journal editors are in a position to influence the re-allocation of vast sums of public money in British universities."
HEFCE is expected to move to curb manipulation of the RAE. A consultation document on the RAE was due this week, but has been delayed.
The funding council is expected to propose plans to make its published results of the assessment exercise much more explicit, so manipulation when it occurs can be clearly identified.
Does your institution do anything underhand for its RAE scores? Any examples welcome. Please contact Phil Baty on 0171 782 3298 or email him at email@example.com