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The visible hand of research performance assessment

Abstract

Far from allowing a governance of universities by the invisible hand of market forces, research performance assessments do not just measure differences in research quality, but yield themselves visible symptoms in terms of a stratification and standardization of disciplines. The article illustrates this with a case study of UK history departments and their assessment by the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and the Research Excellence Framework (REF), drawing on data from the three most recent assessments (RAE 2001, 2008, REF 2014). Symptoms of stratification are documented by the distribution of memberships in assessment panels, of research active staff, and of external research grants. Symptoms of a standardization are documented by the publications submitted to the assessments. The main finding is that the RAEs/REF and the selective allocation of funds they inform consecrate and reproduce a disciplinary center that, in contrast to the periphery, is well-endowed with grants and research staff, decides in panels over the quality standards of the field, and publishes a high number of articles in high-impact journals. This selectivity is oriented toward previous distributions of resources and a standardized notion of “excellence” rather than research performance.

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Notes

  1. Assessments of the evolution of the RAE/REF over the years are abound (Bence and Oppenheim 2005; Martin and Whitley 2010). While the RAE 2001 is above all characterized by a grade inflation and a subsequent much more concentrated funding policy by the HEFCE, the main change in the RAE 2008a, b, c was the introduction of research profiles for each department, based on what proportion of its publications was judged to be of national or international quality. The most important novelty of the REF is that “output quality” (now weighed at 60 %) is supplemented with “impact” (25 %) and “research environment” (15 %) (REF 2011).

  2. The list of publishers is based on previous insights into the discipline of history (Hamann 2014; Gengnagel and Hamann 2014), has been inductively expanded and revised during the investigation, and is widely congruent with the results of Zuccala et al. (2014).

  3. A complete list of journals can be requested from the author.

  4. The flow of research staff should always be seen in proportion to absolute research positions. While a 55 % increase in research staff for the “bottom 6” of 2008 corresponds to an absolute growth of 15.8 FTE research positions, the 17 % increase of research staff at the “top 6” departments in the same period equals an absolute growth of 35.5 FTE research positions. Although the differences in relative staff increase (55 and 17 %) may indicate the contrary, the gap between both rank groups still grows in favor of the top rank group.

  5. The extraordinary gap between the top and bottom groups in the RAE 2008 is caused by the financial position of the history department at UCL described in footnote 6.

  6. The peculiar financial position of the history department at UCL in Fig. 1 is caused by an institutional exception: from 1966 to 2012, the UCL Centre for the History of Medicine was primarily funded by the Wellcome Trust. Accordingly, during the period in question the trust awarded the Centre two grants, which explain the exceptional position of UCL in terms of external research funds (RAE 2008c).

  7. A less pronounced relation could be found between book chapters and rank group, no distinct relation could be found between edited books and rank groups. The data for chapters and edited volumes can be requested from the author.

  8. This is particularly remarkable since the history panel of the REF 2014 vowed not to “privilege any journal or conference rankings/lists, the perceived standing of the publisher or the medium of publication, or where the research output is published.” (REF 2012: 87).

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Hamann, J. The visible hand of research performance assessment. High Educ 72, 761–779 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-015-9974-7

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Keywords

  • Performance assessment
  • Research Assessment Exercise
  • Research Excellence Framework
  • Stratification
  • Standardization
  • Marketization