Research cash models are fair, Rammell insists as he dismisses pitfalls

June 16, 2006

Research selectivity has gone far enough, the Higher Education Minister said this week.

In an exclusive interview with The Times Higher , Bill Rammell launched a firm defence of the Government's reforms of research funding put out for consultation on Tuesday.

While vice-chancellors scratched their heads over five metrics-based models that offered a scatter-gun approach to research funding - with universities from the Golden Triangle at the top and bottom of the tables - Mr Rammell insisted that the models were objective and fair.

"Once you have established a fair methodology, you cannot then rig the system," he said.

"I was at a conference on postgraduates this morning where we discussed research selectivity, and I have to say that I agree with the Universities UK line that the current degree of selectivity is arguably just about right."

Mr Rammell insisted that the models were objective. "The use of solid indicators of research performance, such as research council funding and citations, will mean the methodology is robust."

But he had no clear explanation of why they worked against such similar institutions in such different ways. "I am not prepared to go into technicalities at this stage," he said. "The consultation period will provide plenty of opportunity for problems to be identified and mitigated.

"The disadvantages of the research assessment exercise are well known," he added.

"Now is the time to look at the disadvantages of the metrics-based system to ensure that whatever we do adopt works."

He said there was no preferred option among the five models put forward by the Higher Education Funding Council for England as part of the Department for Education and Skills consultation document. He insisted that the metrics-based system eventually adopted would be cheaper than the current exercise. "The RAE has been enormously successful in driving up quality, but it has entailed a heavy burden of administration and bureaucracy," he said.

However, the consultation document does not compare costs for the different models. Nor does it offer suggestions as to how their behavioural impact - essentially the rush to secure research council grants - would be mitigated. "These issues will be thrashed out in the consultation period," Mr Rammell said.

He stressed that the modelling had been done only for the science, technology, engineering, maths and medical subjects. Other subjects, such as the arts and humanities, would use a "more differentiated approach". Hefce and the Arts and Humanities Research Council are now examining options.

He dismissed suggestions that relationships between the DfES and the Treasury were anything other than harmonious.

"The Treasury was represented on the working party that drew up the consultation document, and I have frequent discussions with my opposite number there," he said.

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