Within its first 100 days, the Rudd Government made good its election commitment to the university sector to replace the flawed Research Quality Framework. The Howard Government's RQF has been scrapped in favour of Excellence in Research for Australia – the ERA initiative – launched in February 2008.
We are rightly proud of Australia's record in research. The Government has launched ERA to measure the achievements of researchers in our publicly-funded universities. The aim is to establish a world-class research quality assurance system that will assess Australian university researchers by comparing them not just with each other, but with the best in the world.
The RQF lacked transparency and did not reflect world’s best practice. It was cumbersome and far too resource-greedy for the task of providing a mechanism to apportion research block funding between institutions. For these, reasons, it did not win the confidence of the university sector or of the majority of individual researchers within it.
Unlike the RQF, the new ERA will be a world-class system of research quality assessment. The new system will be streamlined – employing only eight committees instead of the RQF’s planned 13, and assessing only four disciplines areas each year.
ERA does not feature the controversial “impact” measure that was a feature of the RQF, involving lengthy, time-consuming, written descriptions. This would have eaten up researchers’ precious time, as well as requiring detailed and painstaking attention on the part of assessors. The “impact” measure would have taken Australia on a path that led away from accepted international best practice – just when we need more than ever to ensure that our researchers have international standing.
Metrics will be employed in disciplines where they enjoy established confidence: these include the physical and biological sciences. At the same time, there will be expert review of possible metrics for all disciplines where they might apply.
Elsewhere, consultation with other disciplines and researchers within them will help us establish alternative metrics, or proxies for metrics, that will work effectively and that will have credibility. We have already begun that process.
The Government is committed to crafting a system that has the support of our scholars and researchers, and of universities themselves.
The principle of peer review, in assessing research quality, is highly respected by the Rudd Government. ERA will be based soundly on this standard. ERA will deploy leading researchers in each of the ARC discipline clusters who will evaluate research performance both by institution and by discipline.
Reviews in each discipline will be overseen by a Research Advisory Committee with membership comprising internationally recognised researchers who have recognised expertise in research assessment. These experts will ensure that differences between disciplines, and anomalies within them, are identified and allowed for in the compilation of data.
Emerging areas of research excellence will be catered for, as well as established ones. Institutions will nominate both existing and emerging areas of strength in each cluster. Because it will help to define areas of excellence, ERA will aid the development of the Government’s “hubs and spokes” model for research infrastructure and funding. All universities – not just an elite few – will have centres of excellence in specified fields. All university researchers will be guaranteed the opportunity to be active in their chosen disciplines.
Already, extensive resources have been expended in preparation for a new research assessment system. ERA will utilise the vast body of valuable work that has been undertaken by higher education institutions, the learned academies and others. So the new system will build on the achievements of the old.
The Australian Research Council will oversee ERA. The new ARC Advisory Council will lead the formulation and implementation of ERA. It will collaborate with the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR) and with the NHMRC.
Cluster assessments will commence in early 2009, with data collection and trials held late in 2008.
The Government appreciates that the system’s credibility and standing must be assured before ERA is used to drive resource allocation. This way, the Government hopes to achieve the trust and confidence of university researchers, and to establish a consensus that the system is fair, equitable and transparent. It has therefore been decided that the evaluation exercise will initially be decoupled from funding arrangements.
The ARC will consult broadly with the higher education sector on the detail of ERA. This will occur in the first half of 2008, with a view to finalising an implementation plan for 2009. There is a firm commitment to reaching a commonly agreed approach for each discipline.
By moving so quickly to launch the ERA, the Rudd Government wants to send a clear message to Australian university researchers. They are highly valued, and just as highly respected. ERA will help to lift their role on the national stage. Researchers in our universities will play an essential part in the Government’s agenda for innovation that will revitalise our nation’s economy, our social fabric and our cultural life.
ERA is just one step, but a vital one, in building a new Australia that looks to the future.