AUSTRALIA: Research quality scheme scrapped

Plans to introduce a national research quality assessment scheme for Australian universities have been abandoned following the election of a Labor government last week. The cost, however, will be high as tens of millions of dollars have already been spent by the government and universities preparing for the introduction of the controversial scheme next year.

Labor's acting Minister for Science and Innovation, Senator Kim Carr, said the new government would abolish the "flawed research quality framework scheme". Carr said it would be replaced by "a new, streamlined, transparent, internationally verifiable system of research quality assessment".

The decision to assess research being conducted in Australia's universities and other public research organisations was announced by former Prime Minister John Howard more than three years ago. An expert advisory group was established and headed by the late Sir Gareth Roberts, who had led a review of Britain's research assessment exercise in 2003.

Roberts, an Oxford don who died suddenly in February, was asked to head the group and advise how an Australian version of the scheme should work. In a report by the group last year, he said that fundamental to the research quality framework model was the importance of review by peers and qualified end-users.

"My experience in the United Kingdom clearly demonstrates that the only system which will enjoy the confidence and consent of the research community is one based on expert review," he said. "I am pleased that the Australian research quality framework will be underpinned by this vital principle."

The report endorsed RQF outcomes influencing future research block funding for universities. Roberts said he was confident the proposed model, once implemented, would establish greater transparency regarding the quality and impact of publicly-funded research.

Under the scheme, universities were to nominate research groups to prepare "evidence portfolios" that would be assessed by 13 expert panels. The panels would assign scores not only for the quality of the research but also its ‘impact’ and the scores would result in funding determinations and would be published for all universities.

‘Quality’ was to be assessed on a five-point scale using the four best research outputs for each researcher in a group between 2001 and 2006. A quality rating of ‘2’ had to be achieved before a research group could be assessed for impact.

Impact assessment would also be based on a five-point scale taking account of the social, economic, environmental, and-or cultural benefit of research to the wider community. An impact statement of up to 10 pages was to be required from each research group.

With the scheme intended to begin next year, universities prepared to compete for the A$550 million (US$500 million) in additional research funding. The result was that hundreds of academics faced losing their jobs in a massive staff restructuring with those regarded by their bosses as ‘less active in research’ likely to be made redundant or forced to accept teaching-only positions.

At the same time, top researchers were being poached from other universities in Australia and overseas with offers of $250,000-plus a year salaries – double the usual amount a professor might earn. Entire research teams were lured from competing institutions in universities around Australia.

By the start of this year, several universities had already conducted audits of the research strength of their academics, with staff ranked on a one to five scale and those scoring a one or two told they would not be included in the assessment exercise and could face teaching-only careers – or retrenchment.

Australia's largest university, Monash, was accused of ‘culling’ its academics in a bid to boost its research strengths by offering lecturers with poor research records voluntary separation packages. One critic claimed 300 staff had cleaned out their offices at the end of last year after accepting a $10,000 bonus to quit, although this was more related to a sharp fall in IT enrolments.

Earlier this year, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), which represents a majority of the nation's academics, warned that there was widespread anxiety on campus about the impact of the scheme and that stress levels among academics were high and rising.

Adding to academic concerns was the lack of information about what would actually be assessed and how the ratings would translate into funding outcomes. In a survey of NTEU members across the sector, the union's research coordinator, Andrew Nette, found many instances where academics had been ‘leaned on’ to leave or bring forward their retirements.

The union lobbied the Labor Opposition to abandon the scheme if it won office. With vice-chancellors also opposed to its immediate introduction, Carr agreed and, with the election landslide not only removing the conservative government from office but also Prime Minister Howard from his own seat in parliament, the RQF became a lost cause.

Carr said it would be replaced by "a new, streamlined, transparent, internationally verifiable system of research quality assessment". This would be based on quality measures appropriate to each discipline and the measures would be developed in close consultation with the research community.

"The Labor government will also address the inadequacies in current and proposed models of research citation. Labor's model will recognise the contribution of Australian researchers to Australia and the world," he said.