Reputation, Refutation, Concentration

December 16th, 2008 by John

Reputation in the university sector has never had a higher premium than at the present time, as the world’s universities compete with each other more overtly and more globally than ever before. Later this week, the results of the UK’s RAE 2008 exercise will be released by the UK university funding councils. Universities across the UK are holding their collective breath to see whether their stock has risen or fallen since the previous exercise, in 2001. The results affect more than simply reputation, since the sharing out of £1.5b of UK research funding by the government for the next several years will also be determined by them. Although they won’t be issued in the form of a league table, you can rest assured that the press will very quickly compile one. The Times Higher Education is appearing a day early to coincide with the publication of the results. This blog will give a quick summary of the key findings.

Will Oxford, Cambridge and London still predominate? Who will have jumped the furthest since last time, and who will have fallen most spectacularly? Will the Scottish universities, forcing themselves to collaborate in ‘research pools’ in order to compete with the southern ‘golden triangle’ find their efforts vindicated? And, further down the line, which Vice Chancellors might fall on their maces as a result of poor showings or failed strategies in the submissions? Which deans will suddenly find early retirement attractive? Which departments might have to close as universities desperately adjust to an altered financial picture ahead, and the pressure to concentrate on the strongest subjects in order to win back lost income next time round becomes even more intense?

Of course, it is not just the UK which gets itself into a frenzy over rankings. The Times Higher last week reported that the Malaysian opposition leader has declared that the country should be ashamed of the poor performance of its ‘leading’ universities in the Times Higher’s own ranking of the world’s top 200 universities. What is somewhat extraordinary about this is the credence given by academic leaders, surely among the most critical and intelligent people on the planet, to league tables whose methodologies are often criticised as being of dubious value. What we see is the reality of media control over impact: the rankings may count for little in themselves, but once they are published and in the media, they are very hard to refute. Those who do complain about their inaccuracies or criticise the methodologies concerned – and it is likely that the academic press will once again contain a flurry of such comment after this UK RAE – will be ignored, or accused of being bad losers. And academics, attempting to make points about methodologies and statistics, can of course be easily dismissed as indigestible to the media.

In our Workflows in Research Assessment project, we are drawing upon the expertise of two Australian colleagues in our Expert Advisory Group – Colin Steele (ANU) and Ross Coleman (Sydney). Colin recently drew my attention to a background paper issued by the Group of Eight – Australia’s association of top research universities – which very usefully summarises the efforts of a range of countries across the world to concentrate research excellence as far as possible. The reason for this is that many countries which fund research largely out of the public purse now believe that the UK model has proven its worth, and that concentrating research makes countries more economically successful. Research assessment is therefore no longer really the point; what the effort is now aimed at is research excellence concentration (hence the term excellence in both the UK and Australian new versions of the exercise). The paper states that

Research by Ellen Hazelkorn (2008) for OECD demonstrates that the new body of comparative information, especially institutional rankings and research output metrics, has rapidly become installed in the perspectives, performance measurement systems and objectives of both national governments and higher education institutions; and is entering into the funding decisions of corporations, philanthropists and donors. Hazelkorn surveyed and interviewed institutional leaders in 41 countries on their response to university rankings and league tables. Almost universally, respondents testified that ‘rankings are a critical factor underpinning and informing institutional reputation’, affecting applications, especially from international students; university partnerships; government funding; and the employer valuation of graduates.

Countering those in Australia who question the policy of research concentration, the paper provides the evidence for a worldwide trend in countries with large amounts of public funding provided to research:

  • Canada has set itself the goal of ranking amongst the top four countries in the world in terms of R&D performance
  • The United Kingdom has now undergone several rounds of externally reviewed assessments of research quality which have increasingly concentrated funding for research, research training and research infrastructure
  • France is investing in competitive clusters, with 10 ‘supercampuses’ sharing EUR5 billion to form French centres of excellence to rank among the world’s top universities
  • Germany has taken a major change in policy direction through its EUR2 billion Excellence Initiative
  • China has concentrated funding in its top performing universities via its 211 and 985 projects, with the aim of increasing Chinese representation amongst the world’s leaders
  • India has established 12 new central universities, alongside plans to set up five new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, eight new Indian Institutes of Technology, seven new Indian Institutes of Management, and 20 new Indian Institutes of Information Technology
  • Japan has established the World Premier International Research Center (WPI) Initiative. It provides concentrated support for projects to establish and operate research centres that have at their core a group of very high level investigators
  • Singapore has concentrated investment in building world class nodes, to create the ‘Harvard and MIT of Asia’
  • Brain Korea 21’s first phase expired late in 2007. The government has doubled spending for the second seven-year phase to $2 billion.
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