Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Research Evaluation Down Under: An Outsider's View from the Inside of the Australian Approach

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Research Evaluation Down Under: An Outsider's View from the Inside of the Australian Approach

Article excerpt


Australia is conducting its first national evaluation of university research. It has been a rocky start. Preparations began in earnest in 2005 with the establishment of an administrative group within the Commonwealth (national government) bureaucracy to carry out assessment under the Research Quality Framework (RQF). The RQF details were never finalized, but the proposals sent out for consultation with the university sector suggested assessment along lines similar to the U.K. Research Assessment Exercise. Specifically, the end result was to provide a quality ranking by discipline-based units for each university determined by an expert panel in that academic discipline. The nascent scheme had Australian heterodox economists extremely worried that the RQF would speed the decline of heterodox research and teaching "down under" (see King 2007).

There was relief among heterodox economists when the Liberal-National Party Coalition (conservative) government was defeated by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) (center-left) at elections in November 2007 and the RQF was abandoned. However, the policy of conducting a research assessment was not abandoned in totality. Instead, the new government replaced the RQF with Excellence in Research in Australia (ERA). This has left substantial concerns about the likely impact on heterodox economists (see King and Kriesler 2008).

The intention of ERA is to provide an evaluation of the research performance by academics in Australia within discipline and subdiscipline groupings. (1) The evaluation will be informed by quantitative information on the amount and quality of activity (publications, funded expenditure, and applied outcomes) per researcher within each discipline classification over the period 2003-2008. The quantitative information together with qualitative information is to be assessed by expert discipline panels to place the research performance of each discipline at each university into a performance band from one to five, representing a level of performance relative to world performance benchmarks.

The Labor government has indicated that the results of ERA will only be published as a distribution of outcomes across universities. No results for individual universities are to be published (no league table), although each university will be given the results of its own performance evaluation in each discipline along with comments from the expert review panel. Further, the results are not to be used in determining funding allocations for universities. Nonetheless, universities can be expected to use the results in hiring and promotion decisions of individuals and in determining areas for expansion or closure. Periodic repeats of the exercise are intended and no commitment has been made regarding continuing the exclusion of funding consequences or the ban on publishing results for ranking universities by discipline. King and Kriesler (2008) provide examples of how Australian university economics departments are dealing with heterodox economists in anticipation of the implementation of ERA. While the experiences cited are diverse, there are clearly some warning signs for heterodox economists.

This article reviews several aspects of the proposed Australian research evaluation exercise as it relates to heterodox economics. The section below contains a discussion of the approach to research evaluation planned for ERA. This is followed by an account of the revision of the research code classification that was undertaken in 2007, which led to substantial controversy regarding the positioning of economic history and the history of economic thought. The fourth section reviews the recently completed journal ranking exercise, while the fifth discusses other elements of the research evaluation exercise. The article concludes with personal observations and words of advice.

In discussing the development and potential effects of ERA, the author draws on his involvement in peer-review processes connected to research evaluation. …

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