New Zealand Tertiary Institutions Requires Additional Research Grant, Experts Advise

An expert panel wants a $100 million boost to the government’s $315m fund for research in tertiary institutions and a lot more money for Māori and Pasifika researchers.

The panel’s review of the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) recommended abolishing research quality scores that are used to rank institutions participating in the fund.

It has also called for funding Māori and Pasifika research at the same rate as the most expensive sciences, and changing the fund’s name to the Tertiary Research Excellence Evaluation.

The Performance Based Research Fund is for tertiary institutions that teach degrees and its allocation is based mostly on a six-yearly assessment of the quality of academics’ research. The remainder is based on the number of students completing research-based postgraduate qualifications, and the amount of external research income institutions receive.

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It is dominated by the universities and has been controversial because of the amount of time it takes up and its emphasis on research over teaching.

The president of the Tertiary Education Union, Michael Gilchrist, said the review panel had not gone far enough.

“We see the report as astonishingly tone deaf in terms of its defence of the existing system,” he said.

“We wanted an overhaul, but I think what we’re really surprised about is there are scarcely even minor tweaks to the system.”

The panel’s chairperson, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, said the fund was worth keeping because it provided the public with assurance tax-payer funding was supporting high-quality research.

Smith said one the panel’s main recommendations was to expand the definition of excellent research to recognise a wider range of research, including in polytechnics and wananga which currently received little funding from the fund.

She said it had recommended giving Māori and Pasifika research the same funding as subjects such as engineering, dentistry and agriculture.

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“We want to weight it highly because it’s highly important. It’s an area we need to develop and grow and that hasn’t happened previously. So in order to make an accelerated difference, we feel this incentive will do that,” she said.

The president of the Association of Scientists, Troy Baisden, said it wanted more Māori and Pasifika researchers, but he worried increasing their funding will not be enough.

An increase in the rate of funding for new researchers had not resulted in a big increase in that group, he said.

Baisden said the fundamental question was how to measure the excellence of research at all.

“The traditional measure of excellence is how much academic uptake and use there is of a particular piece of research.

“But there’s a lot else there, how much interaction has there been with the community, how much engagement has there been with policy or with industry. Ultimately there also will be an attempt to include impact, but impact is something that often takes longer than six years,” he said.

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The panel recommended phasing out the fund’s allocation based on external research income, a portion of the fund dominated by Auckland and Otago universities.

It also recommended changing the fund’s name to the Tertiary institutions Research Excellence Evaluation, and doing away with average quality scores which were used to rank universities.

Victoria University of Wellington had the highest average scores in the last two rounds of the Performance Based Research Fund and its vice-provost research, Margaret Hyland, said the scores should stay.

“I think competition is not a bad thing. Over-competition yes, but a bit of healthy competition I think is quite a good thing,” she said.

“It depends on the behaviour it’s driving and I would say around research quality that’s a good area to have some competition so that we are always trying to improve.”

The Education Ministry is consulting on the future of the fund until 9 October.

The article is originally published at RNZ.

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