Select Committee on Science and Technology Second Report


OPTIONS FOR THE FUTURE

80. In England 55% of researchers now work in 1,081 departments rated 5 or 5*. Only five years ago only 573 departments received 5 or 5* ratings, accounting for 31% of active researchers. No doubt if the RAE were to be held again this figure would increase and fail still further to act as a mechanism for effective selective funding. If three quarters of active researchers worked in 5 or 5* departments, how could the Funding Councils choose between them? At present departments rated 5* can only increase their QR income by recruiting more researchers. It is generally agreed that the RAE has achieved all it can in its present form. The question is whether we abandon it completely or whether it could form part of a broader funding mechanism for higher education research.

No research assessment

81. The first question is whether we need research assessment at all. The Chemical Industries Association has proposed a system based on a "rigorous 5-year 'business' plan", instead of the present retrospective funding.[134] This has some merit but risks a loss of transparency, one of the more positive aspects of the RAE, and could not completely replace an assessment process: a scheme such as this would need some sort of external appraisal of quality. Retrospective funding adds a counterbalance to the prospective funding offered by the Research Councils.

No RAE

82. The next option would be to replace the RAE with a different method of quality assessment. Several witnesses suggested using Research Council grants as a mechanism for allocating QR.[135] This has its superficial attractions: it would be cheaper and less burdensome on researchers. Such a mechanism would increase the current level of selectivity, however. Cambridge got the highest amount of combined Research Council/Funding Council income in 1999/2000. If its Funding Council QR had been calculated on its Research Council income, it would have received £78.2 million rather than £60.3 million. At the other end of the scale, London Guildhall (125th in combined income) would see its QR funding drop from £253,000 to £33,000. Queen Mary, University of London (22nd) would see its QR funding remain almost unchanged at £13.3 million. If this mechanism were used to distribute all QR funding, the top 10% of institutions would benefit at the expense of the rest. The mechanism would also need to embrace all project funding. In cancer research, for example, the Research Councils provide less funding than the charities, and the Wellcome Trust invests more in biomedical research that the MRC. Departments operating from a low research capacity would find it hard it invest to raise quality. We are not persuaded that research assessment should rely entirely on success in obtaining Research Council grants. It has also been suggested that a biennial system of peer review in which departments could rank each other could replace the RAE.[136] Such a system would need to be very reliable, given the amount of money allocated.

A reformed RAE

83. It is generally agreed that there is a future for the RAE, but not in its current form. We need an RAE with a lighter touch. In this report we have identified a number of areas which need addressing, both in the RAE process and in its funding.

84. Several submissions to the Committee expressed the need for less frequent RAEs, and in particular for the next one to be more than 5 years away. A 7 or 10 year RAE would be less onerous but it would create problems for new or rising departments. No ambitious department wishing to improve its research output should be condemned to a low level of funding for such a period. If longer intervals were introduced between RAEs there would have to be a mechanism whereby departments could request a reassessment before the scheduled assessment date. There is a clearly a trade-off between a long assessment cycle to reduce the burden on researchers, and the increased freedom to undertake speculative and long-term research, and the danger of ossification in the system and the danger that any new departments would have to wait longer before QR funding is available to them, which would stifle their development. Departments should be able to request a reassessment midway through the cycle to reduce the funding delay for new departments and those which have invested to increase their research capacity and quality.[137] Similarly, HEFCE should be able to select departments to be reassessed if there were indications that research quality had dropped there. In her evidence, Margaret Hodge suggested the need to synchronise the assessment process with the Government's spending cycle.[138] We recommend that the RAE should take place every six years, with interim assessment as requested by developing departments or as considered necessary by HEFCE.

85. The AUT has called for a postponement of the next RAE. We share many of the AUT's reservations about the process, but the priority must be to make decisions about future assessment, make the necessary changes and introduce the necessary checks and balances. Postponement of a decision could lead to inaction which is in no-one's interest.

86. We believe that the RAE should continue but only as a part of a broader higher education research funding strategy in which its side effects and disadvantages are offset by other mechanisms. We suggest the following model for discussion. HEFCE's research budget could be divided into four sections -

      (1)  Funding excellence. Top-rated departments would be exempted from the formal research assessment process if they wish. Instead their Funding Council income would be based on their project funding from Research Councils, charities and other sources. Funding levels would need to reflect the source of funding and the overheads included in that funding. HEFCE might reward the individuals responsible for their department's high rating.

      (2)  Promoting new centres of excellence. Other departments could continue to take part in a research assessment process. Funding from the Funding Councils would then be based on a formula relating research quality and volume as at present but departments not reaching a minimum standard of quality would not be funded.

      (3)  Developing research capacity. Departments taking part in the research assessment process could apply for development money through a bidding process and would be assessed by subject panels based upon the RAE UoAs. They would be required to enter subsequent RAEs to provide a benchmark for improvement. Applications would be based on a business plan which should indicate how they intend to achieve a higher research quality rating.

      (4)  Fostering external collaborative research. This fund would support the indirect costs of institutions attracting external project funding. (This would be akin to the GR funding stream which was available until 2001-02.) The amount of money provided to universities from this fund would be based on universities income from external project research. Top-rated departments would not be eligible for this funding since external funding is already taken into account.

87. This model would release top performing departments from the bureaucracy of the RAE while maintaining the incentive to maintain or improve standards. It would provide the incentive for all universities to engage in research and to strive for the highest standards when doing so. It would allow for both the maintenance of recognised centres of excellence and also for new groups or centres to come through and new fields of research to be established. The bidding system could also be used as a carrot to encourage good practice in research management, perhaps in relation to matters such as universities' implementation of the Concordat on research careers. The fund for developing research capacity could succeed SRIF, thus departments could bid for infrastructure within a larger bid for research funding.

88. This model of research funding could operate within a broader system of higher education funding which provides incentives for excellence in all areas of universities' activities: teaching, community and economic involvement as well as research. The aim should be to produce a coherent funding system, with a small number of flexible funds.




134   Ev 119 Back

135   Ev 78, Ev 104 Back

136   Professor Richard Williams, quoted in THES, 22 March 2002 Back

137   Ev 83 Back

138   Q 165 Back


 
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