UUK and research elite criticise Treasury's metrics-based proposals for funding allocation, saying they undermine 2008 exercise. Lee Elliot Major writes.
Universities this week delivered a crushing blow to the Government's planned research assessment reforms, rejecting all its key recommendations for replacing the research assessment exercise with a metrics-based system for evaluating research and allocating grants.
The elite research universities and the vice-chancellors' body were united in their opposition to the Treasury's controversial plans to allocate general block grants to universities, worth more than a billion pounds a year, solely on the basis of the research income they have earned.
Universities UK and both the Russell and 1994 groups of research-led universities all urged a full investigation into deploying instead a full "basket of metrics" - incorporating measures of research income as well as research outputs and quality - and employing panels of academic experts to guide the use of metrics in different disciplines.
They rejected government suggestions that the current RAE, to be completed in 2008, should immediately adopt a more metrics-based approach.
They warned that confidence in the assessment would be lost if there were not guarantees that it would have a major impact on allocations for at least three years after the results were unveiled.
Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London and chair of the Russell Group, said: "We don't believe that a single metric is the answer.
We need a much more fundamental review of metrics."
The elite research universities group's response to the Government's central proposals was unequivocal, stating: "The Russell Group could not support any of the possible models set out in the consultation."
Drummond Bone, vice-chancellor of Liverpool University and president of UUK, said: "It's clear that the current RAE must go after 2008 - it's vital that we think radically about the future of research assessment and funding. But we have real concerns about the models outlined in the consultation. In particular, we are worried about an approach that is based solely on research income and that excludes peer involvement entirely."
The vice-chancellors' reservations were outlined in a set of "principles for future of research assessment funding" published by UUK.
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University and chair of the 1994 Group, said: "There is a realisation that the old-style RAE is over. What we are looking at is using peer review combined with a basket of metrics to create a system that could be applied across all disciplines. But we need time to consider how this might work."
The responses crystalise a growing unease across the sector that the Treasury-driven proposals represented a crude and ill-thought through attempt to reform the future allocation of general research grants to universities. The highly volatile outcomes of potential allocation schemes flagged up by the Government caused widespread alarm when unveiled three months ago by David Eastwood, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
But university heads also give short shrift to many of the other suggestions proposed in the consultation.
"We do not believe it is appropriate for panels to change their approach to the 2008 exercise at this late stage," concludes the 1994 Group's response, echoing views in the other statements.
The Russell Group argues that the 2008 RAE "must very substantially influence QR (quality-related) funding for a period of at least three years, possibly five."
Professor Grant added: "We are at risk of undermining all confidence in the current RAE."
Another common concern is that any international benchmarking exercise to gauge the global standing of UK researchers should not be divorced from future funding decisions, a proposal mooted in the consultation.
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said: "We very much welcome the constructive responses to our consultation received from Universities UK, the Russell and 1994 groups. All three highlight key aims for the new system that the Government shares: a significant reduction in the bureaucratic load on universities; strong higher education sector involvement; and, above all, robust measures to recognise and reward excellence in both pure and user-led research."
The body representing post-92 universities, Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, has not yet completed its submission to the consultation, which ends in October.