System for funding research 'must be scrapped' because of abuse by universities

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The Independent Online

A controversial grading system for university research departments must be scrapped because it has led to abuse in the rush to get government funding, a top-level inquiry recommends today.

Sir Gareth Roberts, president of Wolfson College, Oxford, who headed the inquiry, said it had led to "game-playing" by universities to ensure they obtained the highest rankings.

Under the system, all research departments were graded on a scale of 1 to 5* - with the biggest cash handouts for research going to those that scored highest. However, many universities abused the system by failing to enter weaker researchers for assessment by the Higher Education Funding Council.

In his report, Sir Gareth says: "The consequences of gaining or losing a grade are so great that institutions have an incentive to play games in order to ensure they fall on the right side of the grade boundary." He added: "There was a lot of game-playing in the last round of research assessment and certain groups of people felt very unhappy about being left out of the gradings."

Under the new system recommended in the report, a "quality profile" would be drawn up of each university department - outlining how much of its work is of a top international standard, of international class, national class or not graded at all.

In addition, universities submitting research departments for assessment would have to ensure that at least 80 per cent of the staff are assessed.

The inquiry report is also recommending a new two-tier system for assessing university research departments. About 40 universities - mostly former polytechnics - that carry out little research (getting less than 2 per cent of their income from it) would have their applications considered separately as part of a lighter-touch assessment.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, warned that the move would establish "an unashamed two-tier structure where an 'Ivy League' will develop around those institutions that soak up all the research money".

A final decision on the recommendations in the report, which has been put out for consultation until September, will be made in the autumn.

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