Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY 2002
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.
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where unpublished work, work in progress, was taken into account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
(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The unpublished, uncited work, for example, was particularly relevant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
45. But it is likely to be prominent in the
(Mr Bekhradnia) Oh, yes.
Mr Heath: I think that is a difficulty.
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
(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
(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
(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.
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
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
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
(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
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
(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.
(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.