Top pay to tempt key staff

February 16, 2007

Australian universities look abroad for high-flyers in run-up to new research assessment. Geoff Maslen reports.

Australian universities have begun retrenching academics with poor research records while offering top professors from other institutions salaries of up to A$250,000 (£100,000) a year.

The move comes as universities try to recruit high-profile staff from around the world in readiness for the introduction of a new system for allocating more than A$600 million a year in federal funding.

Poaching senior academics at double the usual professorial salary and dropping largely teaching-only lecturers is rife as the sector prepares for Australia's new research quality framework, the equivalent of the UK's research assessment exercise.

Trials of the controversial RQF will begin this year before its full introduction in 2008.

Julie Bishop, the federal Education Minister, announced in December that the Government had accepted an advisory group's report outlining the format of the RQF: the framework would consist of an expert review process involving examination of the evidence of research quality and its impact.

This followed two years of fierce debate on whether a new system of allocating research money should be adopted and how this should be done.

Despite widespread unease in universities, Ms Bishop said an RQF reference committee would oversee the introduction of the system, including development of guidelines and membership of the 13 assessment panels, and suggest funding formulas.

But serious divisions have emerged over the way research impact should be assessed, with critics claiming that no other country has tried to measure it.

The Group of Eight research-intensive universities claimed that, under the original impact model, poor-quality research could still win funding, while the five-member Australian Technology Network group believed that research impact could be credibly defined, validated and assessed.

The Go8, in its tenth submission on the RQF since former Education Minister Brendan Nelson proposed a new method to allocate research grants, estimated that the research impact statements of up to ten pages for each research grouping would create 16,000 pages of reading or the equivalent of 160 PhD theses.

Michael Gallagher, a former head of the Education Department's higher education division, said at the time that assessing impact seemed more likely to reward mediocrity than research strengths. He said: "Universities are trying to position themselves by poaching staff and using creative recruitment tactics, without adding to Australia's capacity."

Mr Gallagher added that Mr Nelson's original objective was to identify where quality research was being performed and to allocate resources in ways that built Australia's international research excellence. The most sensible course would be to use the available qualitative metrics while referring ambiguous cases to "second-order" peer assessment.

Glyn Davis, chair of the Go8, said it would work with the Government in the next phase of the framework's development. "It is important that the model is robust and provides an accurate and internationally respected measure of research excellence."

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