Surprise winner in higher education research ranking

New Zealand's latest evaluation of tertiary institutions' research has thrown up an unexpected winner.

The Performance Based Research Fund results published today show that Victoria University of Wellington has the highest average score for its researchers, with the University of Auckland second and the former top University of Otago dropping to third.

In the previous ranking, six years ago, Victoria was placed fourth, and its Deputy Vice-chancellor (Research) Professor Neil Quigley says the improvement is the result of a careful strategy to strengthen the quality of research at the university.

“It will mean a little bit of extra money for Victoria. It's going to have a big impact on our ability to recruit staff, to recruit quality students and, more generally I think, it will have a really positive impact on the pride that people at Victoria have in the institution.”

Although the results of the research quality evaluation are used to rank institutions, they will also be used to allocate nearly NZ$1 billion (US$859 million) of research funding over the next six years.

The University of Auckland, New Zealand's largest university, will take the biggest share of that funding, and also of other parts of the Performance Based Research Fund, which are recalculated annually based on research degree completions and on external research income.

Auckland's Vice-chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon says that the university has secured over 30% of the total funding pool.

“This is because we performed best in all three components, winning 28% of the funding available on the basis of the quality evaluation, 33% of the research degree completion funding and 36% of the funding allocated on the basis of external research income. And remember that we had only 25% of the staff who were evaluated nationally."

Other universities also highlighted their triumphs in the latest figures.

Professor Richard Blaikie, the University of Otago's deputy vice-chancellor (research and enterprise), says Otago ranked first for the ratio of researchers to postgraduate students, and second in the ratio of researchers to degree-level enrolments and higher.

“This shows that the ratio of our students to top research staff is among the best in the country,” he says.

And the University of Canterbury – severely disrupted by a major earthquake in 2011 – said it had ranked first or second in 10 subject areas.

The university's Acting Vice-chancellor Professor Ian Town says that is a significant increase compared to 2006, when the university was ranked first or second in five subject areas.

“This is very pleasing. Overall University of Canterbury staff have improved their research performance significantly since the last assessment.”

The Performance Based Research Fund is open to all degree-granting institutions in New Zealand, including polytechnics, private tertiary institutions, and wananga – Maori tertiary institutions.

It has been the subject of controversy ever since it was introduced, with suggestions that institutions push its rules to the very limit.

The latest evaluation saw a last-minute change to the rules so that staff with the lowest-ranked research are not included in the calculation of average scores. The change was made because institutions were using different approaches to ruling staff in, and out, of the evaluation.

The Tertiary Education Commission administers the evaluation and it says the results are sound.

The research fund was introduced in 2003, with a partial quality evaluation held in 2006. The results announced on Thursday are the result of a quality evaluation conducted last year and are based on individual academics' research.

The commission's Chief Executive Tim Fowler says the results show continued improvement in the quality of research, particularly at New Zealand's eight universities.

The top 10 by average research score

1- Victoria University of Wellington
2- University of Auckland
3- University of Otago
4- University of Canterbury
5- University of Waikato
6- Massey University
7- Lincoln University
8- Auckland University of Technology
9- Unitec New Zealand
10- Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi