Russell Group rift over anti-RAE stance

October 29, 2004

Serious divisions were emerging in the Russell Group of traditional research universities this week, as key members defied the group's chair and came out in support of the research assessment exercise, writes Anna Fazackerley.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England sent a letter to all 19 vice-chancellors in the group on Monday, in an attempt to dispel misinformation and anxiety circulating about exactly how the 2008 RAE will operate.

Speaking on behalf of his group, chair Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, has openly attacked the RAE as it is presently structured.

But this week five major Russell Group players argued privately that Professor Sterling's views were not representative of all heads in the group.

Rodney Eastwood, director of strategy and planning at Imperial College London, confirmed that unlike Professor Sterling, Imperial backed Hefce on the RAE.

Mr Eastwood said: "We fully support the 2008 exercise. We are philosophically in support of a peer review-based system and always have been." He added: "I think you will find that other universities have the same view."

Cambridge University said that it felt the same way. A spokesperson for the university said: "We believe the allocation of funding has to be based on the assessment of research... We believe the overall structure of the RAE is acceptable."

Henrietta Moore, deputy director of the London School of Economics, said:

"At LSE we are working on the basis that it's business as usual, and we continue to follow the RAE route and regulations as they currently exist."

But Professor Sterling insisted this week that the group as a whole had "major concerns" about the RAE. In particular, he said that all members wanted the 2008 RAE to rely much more heavily on metrics, such as citations. He called for a move to assess science and engineering subjects using metrics only and not the standard peer review-based system.

Professor Sterling said: "If we are looking for a way of moving towards a time when there is no RAE, we should be saying that those areas that are ready with metrics should be assessed that way."

But Hefce made it clear this week that it would not abandon peer review as the central pillar of the system.

In his letter to the Russell Group, seen by The Times Higher , the funding council's chief executive Sir Howard Newby says: "In the end, after much consultation... [the funding councils] concluded with the majority 95 per cent view that there was overwhelming support for a peer review-based assessment."

Yet his letter stresses that this will be informed by subject-specific metrics "where appropriate".

This means that science and engineering panels, where metrics are generally thought to be a useful measure of research performance, will be likely to take them into account.

But the arts and humanities, where metrics are less comprehensive and attract more scepticism, will be likely to rely much more heavily on peer review.

This will be controlled by the 15 main panel chairs, who were appointed at the end of September.

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