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6 March 2007 HEFCE logo
To  Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions
Heads of universities in Northern Ireland
Direct Line 0117 931 7300
Direct Fax 0117 931 7203

Circular letter number 06/2007

For further information contact Graeme Rosenberg, tel 0117 931 7487, e-mail g.rosenberg@hefce.ac.uk

Dear Vice-Chancellor or Principal

Future framework for research assessment and funding

1.   In December 2006, the Government announced that HEFCE would develop a new framework for the assessment and funding of research, to come into effect after the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). This letter outlines our plans to develop and implement the new framework, in consultation with the sector. We recognise the importance of maintaining a UK-wide indicator of research quality in higher education (HE) and will therefore work closely with the HE funding bodies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in taking this work forward. Consequently this letter sets out plans for developing arrangements to assess research quality across the UK while recognising that funding arrangements are a matter for each country.

Background

2.   During 2006, I co-chaired a working group with Sir Alan Wilson, then Director General for Higher Education at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), which prepared a consultation on options for the reform of research assessment and funding. The DfES consulted on the options during the latter half of 2006, and in December the Government announced that a new framework would replace the RAE after the 2008 exercise. It also confirmed that the 2008 RAE would go ahead as planned and that the outcomes would substantially influence research funding in England for a five-year period from 2009-10. The other funding bodies would make their own funding arrangements.

3.   The announcement set out in broad terms the nature of the new framework, and timescales for its introduction. We will now undertake the work in collaboration with the other UK HE funding bodies and in consultation with the sector, to develop the new arrangements in detail.

4.   Our key aims for the new framework will be:

  • to produce robust UK-wide indicators of research excellence for all disciplines which can be used to benchmark quality against international standards and to drive the Council's funding for research
  • to provide a basis for distributing funding primarily by reference to research excellence, and to fund excellent research in all its forms wherever it is found
  • to reduce significantly the administrative burden on institutions in comparison to the RAE
  • to avoid creating any undesirable behavioural incentives
  • to promote equality and diversity
  • to provide a stable framework for our continuing support of a world-leading research base within HE.

Key elements of the framework

5.   As indicated in the Government's announcement, we will develop a single overarching framework for funding and assessment within which a differentiated approach is possible for groups of disciplines. We will develop processes to produce robust indicators of research quality across all disciplines, and will devise a robust and transparent funding model. This framework will recognise different types of research, including both fundamental research and work undertaken directly in response to the needs of research users. There will be two distinct processes for assessing quality - one for science-based subjects and another for all other subjects - but we intend that these distinct approaches will produce a unified set of quality outcomes, and that they will share common indicators.

6.   The approach for the science-based disciplines (science, engineering, technology and medicine) will be based on quantitative indicators, including bibliometric indicators of research quality and impact, external research income and postgraduate student activity. We will take advice from panels of experts on the application of these indicators to broad groups of disciplines. A key task for us will be to develop new, UK-wide indicators of research quality for these disciplines, which provide robust and transparent measures capable of identifying excellence in order to inform funding, and which are also meaningful in an international context. We are in the process of commissioning expert advice on how bibliometric data can be used effectively to produce quality indicators of this kind.

7.   The full set of indicators for the science-based disciplines will be produced for the first time during 2009, and will begin to influence funding allocations from 2010-11. Thereafter, they will gradually have greater influence on funding, alongside the outcomes of the 2008 RAE, until they fully inform funding from 2014. In order to ensure stability, we expect that the indicators will be based on data averaged across several years. We will also need to decide how frequently to update the indicators and adjust funding.

8.   Research quality in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and mathematics and statistics will be assessed through a light-touch process, based on peer review and informed by statistical indicators in common with the science-based disciplines. This process will be conducted in 2013 to inform funding allocations from 2014, at which point the new framework will be fully in place for all disciplines.

9.   The new framework will operate with fewer and broader subject divisions than the current RAE. For the science-based disciplines, we envisage relatively broad subject groupings, not dissimilar to the main panel groupings of the 2008 RAE. The operation of peer review in other disciplines will require less broad groupings, although we envisage fewer subject groups than the present RAE Units of Assessment. In developing the subject groupings and the quality assessment arrangements, we will need to ensure that they give the fullest possible recognition to interdisciplinary research and to research in emerging new disciplines. We will consult on the subject divisions to be used within the new framework.

10.   We will aim as far as possible and where appropriate to rely on Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data and available bibliometric data to underpin the new system. The potential need for any supplementary data collection, or for institutions to validate externally collected data, will be considered carefully and only pursued if essential for operating the new system, and after consultation with the sector.

Developing the framework

11.   We will undertake detailed work, in discussion with our stakeholders, in the areas outlined above to develop this new framework. While we will work with the other UK higher education funding bodies in particular to develop UK-wide indicators of research quality across all disciplines the funding arrangements for each country will be determined by its own funding body.

12.   During 2007 we will develop proposals for the new framework, and will report on progress to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills by September 2007. We will then consult the sector and other stakeholders on proposals for the overall framework for research assessment and funding for all disciplines, as well as on specific proposals for quality indicators in the science-based disciplines. We expect to finalise the overall structure of the framework in 2008, and to test and generate the quality indicators for the science-based disciplines during 2009. We envisage further consultation on the details of the light-touch peer review-based process for quality assessment in other subjects during 2009-10.

13.   In the meantime, the RAE 2008 will go ahead as planned, and in due course we will work up the arrangements for allocating funds from 2009-10, driven by its outcomes. These will be designed as a strong baseline for the new framework, to provide stability and secure a smooth transition for institutions. The RAE 2008 results will continue to inform funding as the new framework is gradually phased in from 2010-11 to 2014 for the science-based disciplines, and will fully inform funding for other disciplines until 2014.

Timetable

14.   A timetable for developing the new framework is outlined as follows. The later phases are indicative at this stage.

During 2007 Commission expert advice on the use of bibliometric data as a research quality indicator and develop proposals for consultation; extensive informal discussions with a range of stakeholders
Sep-07 Report on progress to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills
Late autumn 2007 to spring 2008 Consult the sector and other stakeholders on the overall framework for research assessment and funding across all disciplines, and on proposals for quality indicators in science-based subjects
Summer 2008 Finalise overall structure of the framework, and the choice and use of indicators for the science-based subjects
Late 2008 to early 2009 For the science-based disciplines, convene expert panels and test processes for generating quality indicators
Early 2009 Announce research funding allocations for 2009-10, based on RAE 2008 outcomes
By end 2009 Produce quality indicators, and finalise the details of the funding model, for the science-based disciplines
Early 2010 Announce research funding allocations for 2010-11 based on RAE 2008 outcomes, partly informed by the new indicators in science-based subjects
During 2009-10 Consult further on details of the peer review-based assessment process for the non-science based subjects
2011-13 Update the quantitative indicators and gradually increase their influence on funding in science-based subjects
2013 Complete assessment process based on peer review
2014 Research funding for all disciplines fully driven by the new arrangements

Yours sincerely

Professor David Eastwood
Chief Executive