Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)




  40. Yes, but it is not just four publications, excuse me, it is four in very high-quality journals, where you are competing in the international scene, which is very difficult; if you have got a nature paper, a cell paper, or the equivalent in chemistry, it is very difficult for people, and the papers do not get submitted, unless they are in those prestigious journals?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) And so, one feature that we introduced in 2001 was to enable the department, or the university, in making the submission, to give an explanation of the cases where that was not possible, or not the case, for whatever reason. Now all the information I have is that the panels took the written part of the submission very seriously indeed, and, actually, you have raised one particular area in which this was important; there is another, if I may just refer to it, and that is where, for example, a woman was submitted who had taken a career break and had not been producing publications and had not been able to be as productive as others in the interim. I think that that facility was intended precisely to allow for sorts of explanations as to why there had not been the sort of productivity that there might have been, and I think it was taken very seriously and I think it was a well worthwhile innovation.

Mr Heath

  41. On that last point, could I just be absolutely clear, there are instances, are there, within the Assessment Exercise, where unpublished work, work in progress, was taken into account and was peer reviewed within the process?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) It would certainly be cited, yes; but, as a matter of fact, do you know of further cases where that occurred?
  (Mr Rogers) There was a variety of things put forward. The unpublished, uncited work, for example, was particularly relevant when dealing with young staff, staff in the early stage of their career, where many panels asked specifically for comment in the absence of four published works on the other work that had been done, completion of a doctoral thesis, or whatever; so that was listed in a different part of the submission. Although not technically eligible for the form that lists the published output, it was certainly referred to and was taken into account by panels.

  42. Right. So you would reject the view that there is any tendency towards serialisation, as it were, of research, in order to ensure a stream of publications?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) It would do them no good at all, because the panel are not told anything other than about either the publications cited or why there had not been publications.

  43. Dr Iddon took some of the field that I was intending to cover, so I shall be very brief. I just want to come back a little to this relationship between research and teaching, because I think it is very important, and there is a tendency to use the RAE ratings as a sort of `top of the pops' style inducement to attract both students and staff to a particular institution; it is being advertised now, `high RAE rating indicates a good institution,' indicates `come to us, please.' Do you accept that there is a danger, at least, if not realised, there is a danger that that means that we end up with a two-tier of institution, where those who are not as fully engaged in research, and particularly the non-research universities with a teaching base, end up with less-qualified, or perhaps adventurous, staff and, at the same time, undergraduate and graduate entrants who are less likely to prove successful, in academic terms?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) That would be unfortunate, and it would be a misuse of the RAE results, up to a certain point.

  44. It would be, but is it happening?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) One thing that I can say is that universities are adept at using whatever indicators are available to persuade people that theirs is the institution that either staff or students should go to. And we have succeeded, in recent years, and I think newspapers are producing league tables themselves, but we also, in our official publications, have been producing a variety of indicators that universities are using, for example, the rates of drop-out, the success of universities in providing for students from poor backgrounds, and so on. I think it is legitimate, actually, that universities should use RAE scores to attract staff. I do not actually think they need to, I think staff will be looking themselves for whatever indicators they can of what institution would be best for them, in terms of their research interests and their ambitions. For students too, well, for research students, there may be something to be said for that. I can actually think that it is a legitimate way for research students to identify, or one of the indicators a research student might legitimately use to identify, which institution would be best for them, in their particular subject. But, undergraduate students, I think that is much more arguable, actually, and I am sure that undergraduate students are attracted by a host of things, and I do not see why the Research Assessment scores should actually be prominent among them.

  45. But it is likely to be prominent in the prospectus?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Oh, yes.

  Mr Heath: I think that is a difficulty.

Dr Turner

  46. Do you have any concern that labelling academics as `research-inactive' can do a lot of damage to their morale and their professional status, because it is almost tantamount to saying they are second-class, is it not?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) It need not be; I do not see why it has to be. Just a word of history here. The old University Grants Committee and the University Funding Council did not make that distinction, they required all academics to be submitted for the Research Assessment Exercise. The problem now, when the sector widened, is that, manifestly, there is a large number of academics that do not do research, they have never claimed to do research, they were not employed to do research, and it would be pointless to require them to be submitted for research assessment when they do not claim to do research. So we have to allow that academics will not be submitted for the RAE.

  47. But does it not give a more realistic picture of the institution?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) We do publish the proportion of their staff who have been submitted for research assessment; but we cannot assess an academic's research if they do not do research, it would not make sense, and they would not believe it.

  48. No, but we are assessing institutions, rather than individuals, in this Exercise, are we not?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) We are assessing departments, yes.

  49. Yes. Also, you mentioned that you are planning an inquiry into women's representation in higher education; will this include an analysis of why women seem to be disproportionately excluded from the RAE, and, if so, do you have any proposals for correcting this?
  (Mr Rushforth) What we will be looking at is trying to identify barriers that operate within institutions. But I think what we will see is that this is actually a function of something wider, structures of employment within universities, across not just research, that actually some of the research that has already been done suggests that women, when, actually, for example, they make grant applications, are treated every bit as well as males, but that they do not tend to make as many applications, for example, because they do not progress as far in the institution. So it is actually to do with employment progression rather than the RAE process itself.

  50. Do you accept that most academics are drawn to the profession by the opportunity to do research? Given that, if you create an élite tier of research universities, which is inevitably happening, and the RAE itself seems to ratchet up that process, do you think it is going to create a problem where all the other universities are going to find it hard to attract high-calibre staff?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I think that one thing that will happen, that is happening, but happens everywhere in the world, is that universities are able to recruit the best staff, yes, disproportionately according to how they are perceived by the outside world. I do not think that would be particularly peculiar to this country, or necessarily unwelcome. I think that that is already the case.

  51. But do you not think that there is a danger of setting this in aspic, and that the RAE tends to encourage that?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I do not think it is set in aspic. I think, if you look at the RAE results, there is actually quite a lot of change between RAEs, between departments.

Mr Hoban

  52. Government policy gives universities an important role in the knowledge economy, and Regional Development Agencies and universities have been asked to work closely together on that. Are you concerned that there is too much selectivity in research funding, which may create parts of the country where there are no universities carrying out high-quality research?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Up to a point, I think, if that were to become the case, we might be concerned. We have identified, in HEFCE, relations between universities and industry, or the wider world, actually, not just industry, it is industry and the community, as being one of the key functions of universities that ought to be identified and funded separately. It is not actually through the research funding, necessarily, that that should be funded, I think when you are talking about very high level spin-offs, and this sort of thing, perhaps, but there are many levels of interaction between universities and the wider economy. We are already providing significant funding, not through the Research Assessment Exercise, for that activity, and, yes, we believe that it is an activity and a funding stream that needs a significant increase.

  53. Is there not a risk there though that you have got one funding stream trying to achieve one objective, but your exercise of grading research, and funding based on that, could lead to a situation where there is not a large transfer going on to industry because there is not research being done in those universities to transfer into industry, and the first stream of funding, effectively, is redundant?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) No. I think that, if it is the sort of leading-edge research that you are referring to, industry will be looking nationwide, and even worldwide, for university partners. I think the sort of research that I am talking about does not actually require that sort of leading-edge and cutting-edge, pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge, that I think you are talking about.

  54. Finally, you have talked about the amount of publication of research that is used in the grading exercise. Is there a risk that universities focus on publication rather than, perhaps, the commercialisation of knowledge through the industrial sector?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I need to be a little careful in my language. It is not strictly publications that are submitted for assessment, they are outputs of any kind, and so we do have patents, for example, that are submitted; depending on the subject, it can be a variety of outputs. I do think though, generally, there is an issue, I think actually we have gone to great lengths to address it, to ensure that a variety of research outputs is submitted for assessment and universities feel able to engage in a variety of research activity, and particularly research activity that is relevant to industry more widely. I actually think that the changes we have made, that we described, I think, some of them, in our memorandum to you, have addressed this point, to a substantial extent, yes.

Dr Murrison

  55. I will be brief, because we are constrained by time. Looking towards the future, you are conducting at the moment a review of the RAE in 2000, could you tell me please what the purpose of your review is, what you hope to achieve by it?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I think there are two things. One is, we need to learn whatever lessons we can; just in terms of the RAE, as a process, where it went well and where we had problems. But I think we are in a different situation; it has been evolving, and I think probably now we have taken the current RAE process about as far as it is able to go. I am sure, Chairman, we will need a process for identifying high-quality research and enabling us to fund selectively. We are in no doubt about that, some form of research assessment will be required in the future. But I think that we will need to reflect on whether the present process needs substantial root and branch revision, in order to serve a purpose in the new environment in which we find ourselves, in which there is very high quality, very widely, through the sector, whether it provides sufficient discrimination, whether it needs to be carried out as frequently as we have carried it out in the past; all these, I think, are questions we need to address in the future.

  56. In connection with that, would you identify at all with the comments of Professor Susan Bassnett, where she suggests that "Academics spend less time on their research than they ever did, largely because of increased bureaucracy...and increased class sizes."? I think her implication was that the RAE probably contributed towards that.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I do not see why it should contribute to increased class sizes; and I would be disappointed if it led to increased bureaucracy. Of all the funding mechanisms that I am aware of, or assessment mechanism, I think the RAE should be the least arduous, compared with, say, making research grant applications, where every academic is engaged in what, I think, in about 75 per cent of the time, is a fruitless activity, but which they have to carry on doing because grants run out. The RAE takes the outputs that are being produced anyway for other purposes, and assesses the quality of those. It is true that, internally, within institutions, I think, it is fair to say, a lot of effort is expended in making sure that they present themselves as well as they can, and there is effort expended in research strategies, but I do think, actually, that is a positive, not a negative. But, in terms of pure bureaucracy associated with the RAE, there is intensive activity for the panels, as they are doing the assessments, but, for the majority of academics, for the five years of the period under review, I see no reason why there should be a serious increase in bureaucracy, no.

  57. Why five years for sciences and seven years for humanities?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Because the humanities community made very strong representations to us, in earlier RAEs, that the period of time it took for outputs to be produced was just on a very different timescale in the humanities.

  58. And did you buy it?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Yes.

  59. Why?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Just because of the nature of the research they do; scientists produce papers, they do research, they get rapid results, and academics, in, say, history, will spend a very great deal of time researching a topic which will see the light of day in a book, in due course. In terms of intervening articles, unless you wanted to encourage a `publish or perish' culture where they produced an article for the sake of the RAE would not be produced.

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