Australian vice-chancellors are sceptical about a planned research assessment process developed by Sir Gareth Roberts.
Sir Gareth, president of Wolfson College, Oxford, is confident that his work for the Australian Government to devise a process for determining and rewarding research quality will meet the approval of most researchers.
He heads a group set up by Brendan Nelson, the Education Minister, to recommend a research quality framework (RQF). The group has published a report and is seeking responses to 13 questions intended to help shape a new research grants scheme.
But Richard Larkins, Monash University vice-chancellor, said that similar attempts in Britain and New Zealand had introduced almost as many problems as they had solved.
Professor Larkins said that if all that came out of the Roberts inquiry was a redistribution of the current inadequate funding for research infrastructure, then it would be "akin to shifting the deckchairs [on the Titanic ]".
Sir Gareth said Britain's rigorous research assessment exercise system had paid dividends in terms of the quality of research publications. He said the number of citations in the top journals, when normalised to the number produced per million dollars invested annually in research and development, showed the UK was outperforming the US.
"The research assessment system in Australia is deficient in several ways," Sir Gareth said. "The funding algorithm pays scant regard to quality as far as publications are concerned, and there is little or no opportunity to reward good-quality applied research and its impact in areas such as engineering, medicine and social policy."
The report makes clear that the introduction of an RQF would lead to some universities receiving less funding than at present. This could result in a two-tier system for research-intensive and less research-intensive institutions.
The paper says that as the outcomes of an RQF may influence the distribution of research resources, this may require some safety-net mechanisms, through direct or indirect funding.
Dr Nelson's proposal for "teaching-only" universities will be considered as part of the RQF exercise. The paper says that "one very relevant consideration for an RQF" would be the influence of any future changes to the formal nexus between teaching and research in universities.
"At the end of an RQF, it could reasonably be expected that institutions will want to have some kind of rating of either the institution as an entity or various structured parts of it," the paper says. It also asks:
"What kind of scale or ratings should the outcomes of an RQF be reported against?"
Given the enormous diversity within universities, it is highly unlikely that one assessment model will suit all institutions, the paper says. "In pragmatic terms, it may be more appropriate to agree on an overarching assessment framework that is then applied differently to different types of institutions."
Richard Lambert, whose 2003 report proposed third-stream funding to improve links between universities and business in the UK, warned a conference at Monash last week that universities would not stay "in the first division" if spending on research lagged behind the competition.