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October 7, 2013 | by  | in News |
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Calls to Scrap the Thing Vic’s Best At

Critics of a major University research-based funding mechanism have called for it to be scrapped, just months after Victoria came top in the nation for research quality.

Tertiary Education Union (TEU) Vice-President Sandra Grey has called for an end to the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF). A draft submission being put forward to the Ministry of Education claims that the PBRF is no longer an “efficient or effective” funding model.

“The [PBRF’s] effects on staff, students, and communities; the distortions in the teaching and research environments of tertiary institutions; and, the costs of administering the model outweigh any benefits attributed to the system,” said Grey.

The PBRF was introduced by the last Labour Government as a new approach to tertiary-education funding. Rather than the traditional focus on student enrolments, the fund incentivises universities to focus on research. Based on certain indicators, universities are ranked and given a corresponding level of Government funding. Quality evaluations are undertaken every six years, and research-degrees completions and external-research income averages taken every three years.

15 per cent of Government funding to universities is made up of PBRF funding, a value of approximately $250 million per year, said to rise to $300 million per year in 2016. Universities compete for their shares of this funding pool.

$58 million was spent on the most recent PBRF evaluation; a sum that Grey believes would be much better spent funding actual research projects, rather than measuring them.

“Unfortunately, the flaws in the PBRF system are too much to tinker with or fix. The whole system needs to be scrapped and start again with a fresh new approach. A new approach that invests in all academics and all research rather than rewarding bureaucracy and form-filling,” said Grey.

Victoria University told Salient they did “not object” to continuing the PBRF in its current form, and would be making a submission to that effect to the Ministry. However, all academic staff need to supply details of their research output as part of the PBRF auditing process, and this can be time-consuming. Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Neil Quigley described auditing as a “major exercise” for staff.

“The University would like to see fewer items required for Evidence Portfolios. This would be a good way of reducing the amount of time spent on preparing and reviewing Evidence Portfolios,” said Quigley.

VUWSA President Rory McCourt says VUWSA will be talking to students about what changes they’d like to see, because there were “clear issues” with the system, although it was not necessarily bad.

“We need a system that balances research with teaching, learning and the student experience. Research-mad universities in New Zealand have … forgotten the value of good teachers and great learning environments.

“Many in the sector are worried it’s become a numbers game, where shifting staff around and reclassifying has taken too much time and energy. It’s important we put teaching and learning back at the heart of universities,” said McCourt.

Universities have been known to ‘work the system’, responding to incentives within the rules using staffing contracts, something VUW was accused of when it came out top in the most recent evaluation.

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