University titles at stake as Australian research audit reviewed

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After being criticised for lacking teeth, Australia’s research assessment exercise could now determine whether institutions retain the right to call themselves universities – just as authorities consider overhauling the exercise.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa) proposes using the results from Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) – along with citations and peer review culture – to gauge whether universities meet mandatory research quality thresholds.

The main threshold, adopted after the 2019 review of provider category standards, requires universities to produce research at “world standard” or better in at least half of the broad fields of education in which they teach. Universities have until 2030 to meet the benchmark.

Commentators supported the use of ERA to judge research quality, with some saying no other metric was needed. “Citation volume and peer review of publications are substantially covered by the outcomes of ERA,” the Innovative Research Universities group pointed out.

But the proposal has emerged amid a “comprehensive” review of ERA. The Australian Research Council (ARC), which oversees the exercise, said it expected to release a report and “information about possible changes to ERA” by the end of June.

The review has attracted 112 submissions. Of the 76 that have been published, many express considerable dissatisfaction with ERA – particularly its cost, “perverse outcomes”, potential for “gaming” and inability to help universities identify their emerging research strengths.

Former University of Melbourne deputy vice-chancellor Frank Larkins said ERA had “run its course” in its present form. “The question is, what next? While the ARC has been fairly defensive about it, behind the scenes they probably acknowledge that it is time to take stock and say, ‘Is this right for the next decade? Or should be there be a different framework?’”

ERA assesses performance against fields of research. On that measure, six universities – Bond, Charles Sturt, Federation and Torrens universities, plus the universities of Divinity and Notre Dame – did not achieve the quality threshold when ERA was last conducted in 2018.

None of the six indicated nervousness about meeting the threshold in 2030. “We are not concerned about our future status,” said Torrens vice-chancellor Alwyn Louw. “We have a plan and clear strategy for research.”

But while no university opposed using ERA results for regulatory purposes, Divinity vice-chancellor Peter Sherlock said any metric needed to adapt to “the rapidly changing nature of research activity and the very wide diversity of types of research”.

Professor Larkins said the benchmarks used to judge world standard in the ERA were too opaque, and that burgeoning research in developing nations was driving the average world standard down. In 2018, he said, more than 80 per cent of Australian research in some disciplines was deemed to be above or well above world standard. “That demonstrably is not true,” he said.

“The rules have been too static. The reference points haven’t moved, and people have caught up. You can call it gaming the system, but universities have learned to optimise their performance according to the rules, and that’s perfectly legitimate.”

Andrew Norton, professor in the practice of higher education at the Australian National University, said he expected aspiring rather than current universities to struggle to meet the research quality benchmarks. He said that with ERA assessment restricted to current universities, newcomers faced a “catch-22” where “you can’t be a uni unless you can do these assessments, but you can’t do the assessments unless you’re a uni”.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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