Research assessment considered harmful

In the UK, universities have now had almost 30 years of research assessment. The process started in 1986 with a political agenda (I suspect) to demonstrate that some universities were significantly underperforming and so could be shut down. The then Conservative government were probably disappointed that university research was actually quite good. A later Government realised that universities were important to the economy and created lots of new ones – however, they couldn’t afford to fund them properly so the research assessment exercise evolved to be a model for funding – those who did well, got the most money.  In one form or another, this funding-driven model has continued for almost 20 years and has completely transformed attitudes and atmosphere in many universities.

Big money is at stake here so universities have to take it very seriously. There is a transfer market in academics with strong ‘returnable’ track records and universities no longer take risks on staff appointments but insist that those appointment already have a ‘returnable’ track record. Departments who have not performed well in previous exercises have been shut down or merged and long-serving academics who have made important contributions to teaching and running the institution for many years but who don’t have the requisite number of publications are forced to retire.  Lots of money has been spent on ‘research management’ systems and academics have to spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for the assessment. The next assessment is in 2014 so minds all over the country are being focused on assessment rather than thinking about teaching and research. I have spent too much time unproductively this week on assessment work.

Now, unlike some academics, I recognise that there is never enough money to go round and that some form of model for allocating funds is necessary. I think it also makes sense to allocate the majority of funds to support excellence although I think it’s a pity that a fund to support those universities with ambition to improve was never created. But the current model of assessment is so damaging to academic life that the benefits for funding allocation are outweighed by its effects on the type of research that is done, the ways that research is disseminated and the people employed in universities.

By demanding an assessment of the 4 ‘best’ publications of academics submitted, we have created a system where academics can’t do long term work which doesn’t lead to short-term publications; we can’t appoint young researchers with exciting or unconventional ideas on the basis of their potential contribution to the academic life of the institition and our students suffer because, in many universities, teaching is a lower-status activity than research. Indeed, the best researcher sometimes demand ‘no teaching’ contracts, something that thankfully my own institution completely rejects. Research that challenges the status quo is risky to return for assessment in case the reviewers think differently and give it a low rating. We have created a publications industry so that more and more research can be published although most of these publications are probably never read by anyone apart from their authors.

So, given that I’ve accepted we need some model for funding allocation, what are the alternatives? The old model which was used until 1992 or so was that the ‘great and good’ used their judgement to decide what funding universities should have – just as bad in a different way and certainly not politically acceptable now.  My view is that a simple metrics based system is likely to be effective – suggested by Prime Minister Gordon Brown some years ago but rubbished by precious academics who were concerned that no system of objective measurement could really properly value their work. So, it was never tried and we reverted to the hugely expensive peer-based method of assessment which rewards incrementalism and means that there is no place in universities now for long-term creative thinkers and scholars.

We certainly have enough data – numbers of research students, successful PhDs, numbers of research staff, citations, raw numbers of publications, research funding even, if you like, citations and lots of others. Maybe use some ‘big data’ analysis? I don’t know what the right formula might be but I refuse to believe that the collective intelligence of our academic community cannot produce such a model. We’ll have fewer research bureaucrats, more time to spend on research, more opportunities for long-term work and the ability to create new ways of publishing and disseminating our work so that it is not forced into the straightjacket of publications in the ‘best’ journals or conferences.

I’d like to think that the 2014 research assessment will be the last in its current form and that the academic community will constructively engage in a dialogue to create a new, much cheaper system that will recognise that we need a better balance between short-term and long-term work. And then we can get back to research and scholarship, rather than spending our time jumping through the bean-counters’ hoops.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *