Research assessment season in the UK

By Roger Watson | 04/02/2018

A veteran of research panels and subpanels, the author opts out this time.

Research assessment season in the UKBetween trips to Italy and Finland, RNL’s roving blogger discusses university research funding in the United Kingdom.

Roger WatsonThe United Kingdom was the first country to have a government-based assessment system to disburse teaching and research funds to universities. When I matriculated at university in 1974, there were no fees. In fact, I received money from the government in the form of a student grant. These grants were means tested against parental income and family circumstances. 

The conditions under which I went to university could not be more different from the conditions my children face. They pay tuition fees, and low-interest loans are available that leave them with considerable debt upon graduation. However, the money paid from these student loans to the universities barely covers the cost of the education delivered, and we remain largely dependent on government funding. 

Compared with the money raised by deans and university presidents in the United States, the amounts raised by UK universities are risible. I recall when the University of Sheffield raised 1 million pounds in a year. I have seen more raised in one week by the dean of nursing at UCLA. Only the Oxbridge universities could afford to dispense with government funding, and we have only one private university in the UK, the University of Buckingham

More universities, same funding
Returning to the topic of research assessment, when I went to university, the government could afford—wholly—to fund university students and research, the latter based on the size of the university. There were only 40 universities in the United Kingdom. However, at the hands of both Conservative and Labour governments, there was a three-fold increase in the number of universities between the early 1980s and the end of the 1990s with no increase in funding. Thus, the introduction of tuition fees in the UK (except for Scottish students attending Scottish universities) and a more meritorious system of disbursing research funds, loosely referred to as “research assessment.” 

Hugh McKennaI am old enough to have been involved in all of these periodic research assessments. They began in 1989, my first year as an academic. I have had the honor to serve twice on assessment committees—the Research Assessment Exercise in 2008 and the Research Excellence Framework in 2014. It has been my even greater honor to serve on both occasions under the chairmanship of Hugh P. McKenna, CBE, FRCN, FAAN, and I am delighted to say that McKenna has been elected again to lead the subcommittee that assesses dentistry, allied health professions, nursing, and pharmacy for the 2021 Research Excellence Framework

Exercising discretion on the homefront
In addition to this role, McKenna, a former university pro-vice chancellor (equivalent to vice president), is now leading the establishment of a medical school at Ulster University. We often bemoan the lack of nurses at the “high table” of decision-making in UK academia and health, but McKenna, in addition to winning the respect of his own profession, commands the respect of other professions that will be assessed by his committee. I was asked if I would consider sitting on the committee again, but I decided that the fees we earn would make little impression on the divorce settlement when Mrs. Watson discovered that I was to be almost permanently in absentia for another year. On the other hand, I am delighted that my dean, Julie Jomeen, PhD, RM, of the University of Hull, has been appointed. 

There is never a time when research assessment is not high on university agenda. However, with the recently published criteria and announcement of the composition of the panels and subpanels, our focus on research assessment has become more intense. As a veteran of every exercise—in addition to leading three and assessing two—I am in demand at Hull and at other universities for advice on research assessment. Primarily, I am involved in assessing publications and advising my own and other universities on the best ones to submit. I possibly spend as much time on this as being a subpanel member. The difference is, once submissions have been finalized at the end of 2020, when the intense work of the subpanels begins with whole weeks spent in various locations around the UK throughout 2021, I can put my feet up, figuratively speaking. 

My recent travels included a week in Italy at the University of Genoa with doctoral students. I left the UK covered in snow, so the blue skies and warmer days were a welcome break. After Easter, I go to Oulu in the north of Finland to teach master’s degree students, and that precedes by a few days my first visit of 2018 to China and Hong Kong. RNL

Roger Watson, PhD, RN, FRCP Edin, FRCN, FAAN, professor of nursing at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom and a frequent visitor to Australia and China, where he has visiting positions, is editor-in-chief of JAN and editor of Nursing Open. Click here to access Blogger-resident entries posted before 2017 in Watson’s former blog “Hanging smart.”


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