Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 11

Memorandum from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HE 96)

THE 2001 RESEARCH ASSESSMENT EXERCISE

I.  INTRODUCTION

  This paper describes the national Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and its place in public funding for research in the UK. It discusses the key improvements to the assessment process for the next exercise in 2001 and concludes with a summary of recent research on the RAE and the relationship between teaching, research and other academic activities in universities.

II.  BACKGROUND TO THE RAE

  The main purpose of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) is to enable the higher education funding bodies[10] to distribute public funds for research selectively on the basis of quality. Units conducting the best research receive a larger proportion of the available grant so that the infrastructure for the top level of research in the UK is protected and developed.

  The RAE assesses the quality of research in universities and colleges in the UK. It has taken place every four to five years and the next exercise will be held in 2001. Around £5 billion of research funds will be distributed, informed by the results of the 2001 RAE.

  The RAE provides quality ratings for research across all disciplines. Each higher education institution (HEI) makes written submissions of its research work in areas where it is active in research. Sixty panels of experts use a standard scale to award a rating for each submission. Ratings range one to five*, according to how much of the work is judged to reach national or international levels of excellence. HEIs which take part receive grants from one of the four higher educational funding bodies.

  Outcomes are published and so provide public information on the quality of research in universities and colleges throughout the UK. This information clearly has a much wider value than its immediate purpose. For example, it can be helpful in guiding funding decisions in industry and commerce, charities and other organisations that sponsor research. Furthermore, the RAE provides benchmarks which are used by institutions in developing and managing their research strategies. Across the UK as a whole, research quality as measured by the RAE has improved progressively over the last decade.


III.  KEY CHANGES TO THE RAE FOR 2001

  The RAE develops each time the exercise is run. The funding bodies evaluate and review the process carefully after each exercise and improve its mechanisms in order to address any concerns identified. The process of review includes extensive consultation with the higher education sector and users of academic research. The principal changes to the RAE for 2001 are outlined below.

(a)  Equitable treatment of all research activity

  The RAE is concerned solely with the quality of research presented. Accordingly, it uses a broad and inclusive definition of research and regards all forms of research activity, and types of output, as being equally capable of demonstrating the highest quality. In 2001, therefore, panels will not use hierarchical assumptions about the inherent quality of particular types or forms of research. For example, there is no distinction made between basic and applied research. Similarly, research outputs designed for industry, commerce or policy-making organisations are assessed on the same basis as traditional academic publications.

(b)  International referees

  The RAE uses a benchmark standard of international excellence, against which the quality of all work presented is assessed. To ensure that the standard applied is appropriate, and to increase consistency between panels, each panel in 2001 will consult a number of non-UK based expert advisers in its subject area. These advisers will examine submissions which have been provisionally allocated the highest grades. They will be asked to confirm whether or not the standard of international excellence has been appropriately identified and applied by the panel.

(c)  Involvement of research users

  Given that all forms of research may be submitted to the RAE, it is essential that experts other than academics are involved in the assessment process. For the 2001 RAE, therefore, the participation of users from industry, commerce, policy-making bodies and the voluntary sector has been increased substantially. Users comprise 13 per cent of panel members overall, with higher proportions in the sciences and medicine, while three-quarters of all panels will have direct involvement of users in their assessment work.

(d)  Interdisciplinary research

  Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research are now pervasive throughout academic work, and many of the most productive areas of enquiry cross the boundaries between traditional disciplines. The funding councils studied the treatment of interdisciplinary research by the RAE following the 1996 exercise.[11] While that study concluded that there was no evidence that the RAE discriminated against interdisciplinary work, it did identify the need for procedural improvements. The recommended improvements have been implemented for 2001. They include giving the right to HEIs to refer their work to more than one subject panel and the requirement for direct discussion between members of different panels when considering interdisciplinary work. In addition, umbrella groups of the panel chairs in cognate subject areas (for example, Medical and Biological Sciences) have been formed. Ensuring the accurate and consistent assessment of interdisciplinary work is a key component of the remit of these groups.

(e)  Staffing issues

  The RAE has given rise to concerns that junior researchers and female staff were being disadvantaged as they were sometimes less able to offer as full a portfolio of research output as their colleagues. Furthermore, it was alleged that senior staff were often being recruited aggressively by institutions in an attempt to boost RAE ratings to the disadvantage of the former employing institution who received little return for their investment in the research activity of the individuals concerned.

  To address the first concern, institutions have now been given the opportunity to include personal statements within their submissions in respect of staff who are at an early stage of their research career, or who have had it interrupted as a consequence of career breaks. Such information must be taken into account by assessment panels, with due allowance being made, so that HEIs suffer no unfair disadvantage from including junior and/or female staff in their submissions. The second concern has been addressed by allowing both the former and current employing institutions to include within their submissions staff who have transferred between them in the year before the RAE census date. In such cases, both institutions receive full benefit for the quality of work of the staff concerned.

IV.  RESEARCH INTO THE IMPACT OF THE RAE OF TEACHING AND OTHER ACTIVITIES OF HEIS

  There has been considerable concern that the RAE has had a negative impact on the emphasis given to, and status of, teaching and other activities of HEIs. This area has recently been researched in the context of the HEFCE fundamental review of research.[12]

  The research concludes that, while a strong relationship between teaching and research is generally assumed and can sometimes be demonstrated, it is not a simple or uniform one. Furthermore, the mechanism by which teaching and research interact is not clear and the evidence for any necessary relationship between them is weak. The research highlights the role of scholarship, through which teaching is informed by the outcomes of research, as a critical one.[13]

  As part of the research work a specific study was made of institutional policy and practice on the interactions between research, teaching and other activities. This study noted a variable pattern of management practices and approaches. Most HEIs have strategies for research and for teaching and learning, although these vary greatly. In general, however, few institutions were identified which had specific policies in place to monitor or manage the synergies between teaching and research.

Research Assessment Exercise

November 2000


10   The higher education funding bodies are the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) and the Department for Further and Higher Education and Training, Northern Ireland (DFHET). Back

11   Higher Education Funding Bodies, Interdisciplinary Research Assessment Exercise, RAE 1/99, March 1999; available at http://www.niss.ac.uk/education/hefc/rae2001/1<au0,1> <xu99.html. Back

12   Higher Education Funding Council for England, Review of Research, HEFCE 00/37. September 2000; available at http://www.hefce.ac.uk/Research/default.htm.  Back

13   JM Consulting et al; Interactions between Research, Teaching and Other Academic Activities, July 2000; available at http://www.hefce.ac.uk/Research/default.htm. Back


 
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