Thursday, 19 March 2009

What is the Russell Group for?

The Russell Group contains the 20 major research-intensive universities in the UK. The University of Liverpool is a member of the group, and has recently made the news by earmarking its departments of Politics and Communication, Statistics, and Philosophy for closure. The reason is that those departments are seen as having underperformed in the 2008 RAE (Research Assessment Exercise).

In the RAE, departments are ranked by the proportion of research they have in five different categories, as follows:

4*: Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.

3*: Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which nonetheless falls short of the highest standards of excellence.

2*: Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.

1*: Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.

Unclassified: Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.

The three departments faced with closure had no research ranked in category 4*. According to Times Higher Education, "The university has questioned whether this is “acceptable” for a member of the Russell Group of 20 research-led institutions".

So, how did the threatened departments do overall? Here's their breakdown from the 2008 RAE (source):

Statistics: 4*, 0%; 3*, 35%; 2*, 50%; 1*, 15%; UC, 0%.

Politics and Communication: 4*, 0%; 3*, 15%; 2*, 55%; 1*, 25%; UC, 5%.

Philosophy: 4*, 0%; 3*, 25%; 2*, 60%; 1*, 15%; UC, 0%.

These results are surely not disastrously bad. In all cases, the vast majority of research is ranked at 3* and 2* levels: that is, it is considered to be internationally excellent or internationally recognised. Is this really such a poor performance that it requires the closure of the departments?

The threat of closure of these departments raises the question of what a university is actually for. If it only exists to receive as much research funding as possible, then closure is a perfectly sensible action. But if you consider the university as a community of scholars, with everyone (from undergraduates to professors) learning from each other, then closing these departments is going to contribute to the narrowing of the university experience for everyone. Is that really what the University of Liverpool wants to acheive? And is that what the Russell Group is supposed to be about?


Dr Aust said...

Hear hear, Paul.

Speaking as a veteran watcher of Russell Gp Univ politics I suspect there must be some other reason Liverpool wish to "lose" these departments in addition to RAE score.

My experience of RAE-driven merger/closures, at least for science Departments, has been that RAE results will get you merged / taken over - but it takes more than just RAE to get you shut down with threat of redundancies (see Exeter Chemistry).

One example might be if the Univ bosses think (for instance) that Stats as a degree is not getting enough good undergraduate students... or there are a lot of expensive older staff in these Depts they would like to "persuade" into early retirement.

Merger/takeover also usually means some there is some other Department keen to "expand" by subsuming the (better RAE-rated and/or younger staff) bits of e.g. Stats.

There was quite an extended discussion of the Liverpool news over at the THE here and here.

Paul Wilson said...

Dr Aust:

Thanks for the comment, and the links to the THE: had seen the first one, but not the second one.

The comments to the THE pieces seem to be generating more heat than light. It seems to me that the criteria for the different RAE rankings are fairly obscure. What, for example, is the difference between work that is "internationally excellent" (3*) and work that is "internationally recognised" (2*)? What actual criteria must be met for a 4* rating? I spent some time on the RAE website, and it seems that you need to look at the "Criteria and working methods" documents for each panel to find out what the rankings mean, and the definitions are still (inevitably) somewhat ambiguous and subjective.

To me, it still isn't clear that there was anything disastrously bad about the research performance. And in any case, I would question that the results require hitting the panic button and closing the departments.

As you say, I suspect there's more to it than just the RAE results...

Paul Wilson said...

Pharyngula has a post vaguely related to this...