RAE 2008: only the very best need apply

Researchers who might not make the (top) grade face exclusion as v-cs think tactics, writes Lee Elliot Major

Universities are planning to submit only internationally recognised staff to the 2008 research assessment exercise, excluding the majority of academics from the race for ratings and grants.

Vice-chancellors believe that the billion pounds of funding allocated annually on the back of the 2008 RAE will be even more skewed to a small research elite - forcing institutions to make tactical decisions about whether to maximise ratings or income in the exercise.

Mock RAEs have been undertaken across the sector as universities finalise their game plans and ensure that they do not fall foul of anti-discrimination laws when making staff selections.

Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University and chair of the 1994 Group of smaller research-led universities, said: "The bar has been raised.

The two, three and four-star ratings will be tougher than the previous top ratings. I wouldn't be surprised if fewer people are submitted."

Eric Thomas, Bristol University's vice-chancellor and chair of Universities UK's research strategy group, said: "The new scale has pushed the whole selectivity agenda to a different level."

He warned that many institutions had unrealistic expectations: "Parts of the sector appear to be in a delusional state about their proportions of four, three and two-star outputs."

A straw poll of leading research universities by The Times Higher suggests that most plan to submit researchers who are, at a minimum, internationally recognised.

Following the 2001 RAE, 55 per cent of the 50,000 researchers submitted were in departments classified as five and five-star - producing some work of international excellence. But under the "quality profile" ratings in 2008 many academics in top-rated departments would qualify individually only for the lowest grade.

The new two, three and four-star ratings judge researchers' outputs - mainly journal publications - as internationally recognised, internationally excellent and world-leading.

The judgment call facing university heads is whether to limit submitted staff just to "world leading" researchers and maximise the chances of a higher grade, or to include a broader range of academics in the hope of securing more funding overall.

One vice-chancellor asked: "Do we go for money or grade? We have decided to be more selective and go for the highest grade. What matters most is that we have a quality kitemark."

But another head argued that with so much money at stake, he could not afford to exclude any of his leading researchers.

Elsewhere in the sector, the emerging RAE strategies have prompted concerns.

Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chair of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said: "This is further evidence of the distortions arising from a process that marginalises younger staff, undermines research capacity and drives a wedge between teaching and research."

Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "An ultra-selective approach to RAE submissions flies in the face of the official advice of the funding councils. They said that this time around there would be no need for gameplaying or to exclude individuals for strategic reasons.

"We will be closely monitoring institutions' submission strategies to see if they are complying with equalities legislation."

Ed Hughes, who heads the RAE team co-ordinating the exercise for the funding councils, said: "The reforms of 2008 RAE aim to minimise gameplaying."

At last week's annual Universities UK meeting, Professor Thomas said that university heads had reached a consensus that metrics should be explored to replace the RAE.

Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, guaranteed that a single metric would not be used, that universities would be involved in discussions and that a new system would be phased in slowly.

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