Select Committee on Science and Technology Eleventh Report


Conclusions and recommendations

1.  The Funding Bodies should have looked at the quality of the arguments set out in the responses to their consultation and not just the numbers. The move away from the "one size fits all" approach advocated by Sir Gareth Roberts is an important principle which should have been adopted. We consider the Funding Bodies to be unjustifiably conservative in their proposals. We do not see it as HEFCE's role to protect the sensitivities of universities. (Paragraph 16)

2.  We believe that the panel/sub-panel structure is a positive step in improving consistency and improving the treatment of interdisciplinary research. We recommend that the Funding Councils seriously consider the establishment of panel moderators. (Paragraph 26)

3.  We welcome proposals to strengthen the use of overseas panel members. It should form part of a wider exercise to benchmark UK research. (Paragraph 32)

4.  The panels and sub-panels need to be properly resourced. Overstretching staff and panel members could lead to panels reviewing individuals selectively and coming up with a biased or wrong conclusion on quality. Under-resourcing is an affront to the researchers and institutions who have gone to the trouble of putting the submissions together. (Paragraph 33)

5.  It is clear that the workload of panels is excessive but it is less clear how it can be reduced while all higher education institutions continue to enter the RAE. An excellent opportunity to reduce the burden on panels has been missed by the Funding Bodies in their decision not to support different assessment routes. In particular our proposal to exempt top-ranking departments would reduce the number of submissions that each panel needed to consider and enable them to give closer consideration to submissions. (Paragraph 34)

6.  We conclude that the definition of research employed in 2001 is broadly adequate. It is important that the panels give equal weight to pure and applied research and that higher education institutions perceive this to be the case. HEFCE should ensure that it is understood by everyone. (Paragraph 41)

7.  It is not acceptable for peer review panels to rely on the place of publication as a guarantee of quality. We recommend that HEFCE to instruct panels to desist from this practice for RAE 2008 and ensure that panels are sufficiently large and well staffed to make informed judgements of the quality of the submissions. (Paragraph 42)

8.  The RAE should recognise that excellent research may not be internationally significant but it may transform the fortunes of a local business or the provision of public services. We recommend that quality criteria concentrate more on the impact of research rather than the place where it has been published. (Paragraph 43)

9.   We recommend that, once formed, panels publish rapidly clear guidance on how they plan to use metrics to inform their appraisals. This should be considered a priority. (Paragraph 46)

10.  The introduction of a quality profile is a significant step forward and, if associated with an equitable funding formula, could eliminate many of the iniquities of the previous grading system. (Paragraph 49)

11.  We welcome HEFCE's acceptance that the tactics employed by universities to improve their RAE grade are not all part of a legitimate research strategy and recommend that it publishes analyses of the strategies being employed by institutions and provide guidelines on what it considers to be acceptable practices. (Paragraph 52)

12.  It seems likely that the media will defy the Funding Bodies' best intentions and distil the quality profile down to a single figure, thus encouraging the exclusion of the least productive researchers if this is permitted. (Paragraph 54)

13.  We think that greater transparency about the RAE, including the public disclosure of included academics, would have many benefits. It is important to highlight the valuable work done by excellent administrators and by lecturers who invest time and intellect in their teaching. We feel that greater clarity about the role of these academics could increase the value attached to their work. We recommend that as a condition of their block grant, higher education institutions publish an annual staff audit, describing the contributions of all members of academic staff to research, teaching, administrative and other functions. (Paragraph 55)

14.  In our earlier Report we reported that women academics were more likely to take on more of the teaching and pastoral functions within departments. It is our view that the issue to be resolved here is the status accorded to academics who take on these non-research but nonetheless essential roles. (Paragraph 56)

15.  HEFCE assures us that panel members, secretaries and RAE team staff will be bound by a duty of confidentiality. We anticipate that this will be challenged in the courts in a bid to reveal publicly the judgements made about the performance of researchers. We recommend that such a move should be pre-empted and that the grades awarded to individual researchers should be made public. This would bring welcome transparency to the process. (Paragraph 57)

16.  Although Sir Gareth's proposals for the assessment of "research competence", if implemented, would place a heavier burden on the RAE, we believe that the need to promote good practice is so important that it should be use alongside other incentives to promote good practice in higher education research. (Paragraph 61)

17.  We are disappointed that the Funding Bodies have rejected any form of mid-point monitoring. The RAE is designed to fund research excellence selectively and this funding should therefore reflect a department's current, and not only past, capabilities. (Paragraph 62)

18.  The figures provided by the Funding Councils of the cost of the RAE to institutions do not appear to be excessive. The fact remains that this burden is resented by universities. The Funding Bodies should be sensitive to this feeling when developing their plans for 2008. (Paragraph 66)

19.  The Funding Bodies' proposals have addressed positively many of our concerns about the RAE mechanism and HEFCE has adopted a more open-minded and constructive approach to its reform, which is a welcome change. A more radical approach, employing a range of metrics to reduce the bureaucratic burden on universities is still needed. We accept that their application will be a complex and time-consuming task for RAE and the Funding Bodies but we believe that the administrative burden should fall here rather than on the universities. (Paragraph 67)

20.  We conclude that a range of measures could be used to replace the peer review process in some subject areas, such as the physical sciences. There are strong reasons to believe that they could be as reliable as the current system while being more cost effective and imposing less of a burden on institutions and panel members. We recommend that the Funding Bodies commission an external study to consider options. (Paragraph 74)

21.  We accept that there are practical difficulties in delaying the next RAE and recommend that the RAE continue as proposed in 2008 but that the Funding Bodies draw up a clear timetable for the development of alternative models of research assessment. (Paragraph 77)

22.  Departments need to know how to play the RAE game, yet HEFCE is asking them to do it blindfolded. HEFCE should draw up guidance to universities on how the quality profile will be used to calculate the funding. We appreciate that there are a number of variables that cannot be known in advance of the RAE but HEFCE should have the capability to produce estimates which would enable it to provide indications about the level of funding provided to each band of the profile. It should do this without delay. (Paragraph 79)

23.  It is not clear to us why HEFCE has deemed it necessary to further increase the level of selectivity of QR funding. We regret that it will intensify many of the problems caused by the RAE and the funding decisions based on it. (Paragraph 81)

24.  We welcome HEFCE's capability funding as a means of building research capability and promoting dynamism in the research base. We are concerned, however, that it is too restrictive. We believe that all departments should be eligible and grants should be awarded on the strengths of their research and investment strategies. (Paragraph 84)

25.  We are pleased that Sir Howard Newby now recognises that a policy of highly selective research funding, based on the RAE, has had an effect on the viability of university departments in core subjects. The RAE does not take place in a vacuum and further changes are also now taking place in higher education following the 2003 White Paper and the introduction of variable tuition fees. It is too early to say what the precise impact of those changes will be. Concerns expressed so far, however, suggest that variable fees may also lead to closures of further university departments, quite possibly in the physical sciences. The operation of the RAE and variable fees may, therefore be mutually self re-inforcing and HEFCE should remain vigilant in these respects. (Paragraph 90)

26.  The provisions for HEFCE to delay closure or offer funding to struggling departments have been criticised for threatening the autonomy of universities but this encroachment on their independence is a price worth paying for the preservation of core disciplines on a national basis. We accept that these powers should be used with restraint but this is an important shift in policy we welcome. (Paragraph 91)

27.  The Government says it will assess the "trajectory" towards the full economic cost model in 2006 in time for the next Spending Review. We hope that it will use the opportunity to review whether the model is a viable one and whether the aim of rebalancing the dual support system could be achieved by a straightforward increase in the research funds available to the Funding Bodies. (Paragraph 94)

28.  We would like to see diversity in higher education research funding but it is hard to see how this can be achieved while the RAE dominates the funding landscape. We have concluded that new incentives for all areas of universities' work are needed. Quality assessment for teaching has proved problematic and unpopular. The Government should consider more radical solutions, perhaps awarding teaching funds on the basis of outputs rather than inputs as has been the case. The "third leg" funds for knowledge transfer have grown in recent years but it is nor clear whether they are yet sufficient to act as an adequate counterbalance to RAE-based funding. We conclude that a greater diversity of funding streams would act as a counterbalance to the RAE. The proposed European Research Council could contribute, as would the greater availability of research funds from other Government Departments. (Paragraph 96)


 
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