Government proposes changes to research fund

Eleven years after the introduction of the country's NZ$250 million (US$195 million) research fund for tertiary institutions, the New Zealand government is proposing only minor changes to it.

The Performance Based Research Fund, or PBRF, has evaluated the quality of research at institutions that provide degrees and postgraduate qualifications three times since it was introduced in 2002 and is now under review.

The government has published a discussion document and is now consulting on possible changes to the scheme, which will be worth NZ$300 million (US$234 million) a year by the 2016-17 financial year.

Sixty percent of the fund is based on evaluations of individual academics’ work and the government wants to stick with that system, despite suggestions from some experts that it would be better to assess the work of groups of academics.

However, the government wants to allocate more funding to the work of new researchers so that institutions are not dissuaded from appointing young academics.

The government has also suggested changes that will reduce the amount of documentation required for quality evaluations, and will generally streamline the process so that it costs institutions less to participate.

Twenty-five percent of the fund is allocated for postgraduate research-based degree completions and the remaining 15% for external research income.

The discussion document suggests giving external research funding from non-government sources double the weighting of funding from government sources.

Minister of Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Steven Joyce says the proposed changes will save time and reduce compliance costs for researchers and institutions while continuing to reward research excellence.

He says they will also clarify the objectives of the PBRF.

The Tertiary Education Union's policy analyst Jo Scott says the review is timely – but that the government should not enter the process with a preconceived set of outcomes before it hears what the whole sector has to say.

“PBRF is one of the issues that most vexes academics. It has created workload pressures and employment disparities. Many people do not view it as a fair system, and we hear ongoing complaints that institutions have altered people’s employment status, and thus conditions, to rort [cheat or defraud] the system,” she says.

“Rather than just ‘tinkering’ with the model to make it more economically efficient, we also need to be willing to start with a clean sheet of paper.”

All degree-granting institutions, including polytechnics and private institutions, can participate in the PBRF, although it is dominated by New Zealand’s eight universities.

Institutions vie to have the highest average quality score because of the kudos that carries and there have been repeated complaints that they bend the fund's rules in order to maximise those scores.