Measuring not fattening the pig

Malcolm Prowle says University research is assessed by narrow academic criteria rather than the benefit it brings to society at large

Virtually all universities in the UK, including those in Wales, undertake a variety of research activity, across the range of subject areas, leading to the creation of new knowledge and, hopefully, benefits to society. In undertaking research they have potential access to three main streams of research funding:

  • Public funding provided for research purposes by the various Higher Education funding councils in the UK, the so-called Quality-related research or QR funding. This is not provided in the form of grants for specific research projects but is a stream of research funding given to universities and over which they have considerable discretion as to how it can be used.
  • Specific research projects and programmes funded by the various UK research councils.
  • Funding from various other private, public and charitable sources who also provide grant related funding.

The QR funding allocations to universities are to be informed , not decided, by a process called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). This is an exercise designed to assess the volume and quality of research output from universities. The current REF is the seventh such exercise – previous exercises went under the title of Research Assessment Exercise or RAE. The REF applies to universities in all parts of the UK, but the results of the REF for Welsh universities will be utilised by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) in making allocations of funding to Welsh institutions.

Universities are currently enmeshed in the REF process which involves expert peer review of their research activity. Universities are invited to make submissions as to their research outputs for the previous five-year period. The greatest emphasis is placed on the publication of research papers by academic staff, which are largely read by other academics without necessarily having any practical purpose or social benefit. These submissions are reviewed by a panel of academic experts and an overall research profile for the university decided. These profiles then inform future QR funding for the years ahead.

The REF is a bureaucratic process which involves significant time and cost inputs by the funding councils, the universities themselves and the expert panels. In 2003 I undertook an exercise which estimated the costs of the 2001 RAE exercise as being of the order of £100 million for the whole of the Higher Education sector in the UK. This equated to almost 10 per cent of the annual funding available at that time. There seems no reason to believe that the current REF is any less bureaucratic or costly to operate.

Somebody once said that you don’t make a pig any fatter by measuring it. Perhaps the same applies to the REF. The effort expended on this bureaucratic and time-consuming exercise might better be spent improving the volume and quality of research output. Moreover the ‘quality’ of research output is itself assessed in relation to narrow academic criteria rather than the benefits produced by the research to society at large.

Moreover, Universities usually undertake a variety of tactical contortions or game-playing designed to maximise their outcomes from the REF process. This can often involve just putting forward a handful of academic staff to the review process while the vast bulk of academic staff remain out in the cold and become demoralised.

Furthermore, concerns are often expressed that the whole REF process is just a device designed to protect the older and better funded universities from predatory newcomers or even private research organisations. There is little in the way of real competitive forces in action with this process. With research council funding, universities do have to submit bids in competition with other universities and funding is given to the most suitable applicant.

Since 1996 the University Colleges Union, the main university trade union has maintained a policy of opposition to the RAE/REF approach. In its view:

“The RAE has had a disastrous impact on the UK higher education system, leading to the closure of departments with strong research profiles and healthy student recruitment. It has been responsible for job losses, discriminatory practices, widespread demoralisation of staff, the narrowing of research opportunities through the over-concentration of funding and the undermining of the relationship between teaching and research.”

It may also be the case that it is students not the unions who should be most disappointed by the REF. The process ends up encouraging universities to try to retain existing research staff or poach research staff from other institutions by offering vastly inflated salaries to so-called research ‘stars’. In a system where funding as a whole is largely fixed this may imply money flowing from student related activities to the top academics. Images of the Premier League transfer market come to mind.

It is too late to do anything about the current REF process. However,  thought will soon be given to its successor. In this time of financial austerity perhaps we should start thinking about having less complex and costly mechanisms for sharing out funds and look for something more likely to give value for money.

An alternative approach might be to do away with the whole QR funding process and channel all the funding through the research councils. In this way government can more easily concentrate research funding in what are seen priority areas. Another approach might be to base research funding on some easily produced metrics. Certainly this would have the advantage of greater transparency and objectivity compare to the current approach.

Malcolm Prowle, who lives in Wales, is Professor of Business Performance at Nottingham Business School and a visiting professor at the Open University Business School.

Also within Politics and Policy