This article reflects on the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise conducted in the UK for Town and Country Planning and closely associated disciplines. It explains the pattern of submissions from different UK universities, and the organisational structure, guiding principles and working methods. It explains how the quality criteria were interpreted and discusses the quality levels achieved and the key research metrics in the field. It assesses the health of the sub-fields and the field as a whole, and concludes with some comments on the next exercise.
Mechanisms designed to assess the 'quality' of research activity undertaken within universities are becoming global phenomena. The growing significance of the results of these exercises should not be underestimated, influencing not just the standing of departments, but (in the case of the UK) their financial viability and the promotional prospects of staff. The UK's Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) is perhaps one of the most well-established review processes in the world, having been in operation since 1982 and completed six reviews. The RAE is a national exercise taking place around every five to seven years and includes all academic disciplines. The findings of the most recent exercise were published in December 2008 and the assessment covers the period January 2001 to December 2007. This article aims to outline the structure and nature of the 2008 RAE and to explore some of the implications and lessons to be drawn for the future about the current state of research activity within the UK planning discipline and related fields, including real estate, transport, housing and social policy and urban design. While we fully expect this article to be of interest primarily to UK-based academics, it is likely that our reflections will be of relevance to a wider international community, given the proliferation of assessment and ranking regimes throughout the world. A similar paper published in Town Planning Review (Punter, 2002) after the 2001 RAE provides more background on the established traditions of the exercise. The responses to that article in the same journal issue gave both national and international perspectives on the RAE, its attributes and its outcomes.
The article has two principal goals: to provide a full and honest account of how the sub-panel undertook its work, and applied and interpreted the guidelines and associated criteria (HEFCE et al., 2005; 2006); and to reflect on the possible lessons to be drawn from this exercise about the quality of research activity in the planning field. In relation to the latter, the article does not attempt to undertake any sophisticated quantitative analysis of the results. Rather, we try to comment dispassionately on the general quality of institutional submissions and research outputs (publications) so as to help the research community understand how quality was judged and how improvement could be achieved. Before focusing on these two themes, the article provides some basic comparative data on the nature of the institutions submitting to the unit of assessment (UoA, also referred to as Sub-panel H31, Town and Country Planning) and describes the key organisational features of the assessment structure.
The pattern of submissions
The 2008 RAE encompassed 25 submissions from schools of planning, real estate, housing, transport, regeneration and rural management and some 438 Category A1 staff (403 full-time equivalents [FTEs]). This compares with 29 submissions and some 370 staff in 2001, and suggests significant concentration in, and expansion of, the main schools, 20 of which remain in this sub-panel.
The UoA/sub-panel continues to embrace a diverse field, including many aspects of urban and rural planning and development. It consists of a core of planning schools (Birmingham City, Cardiff, Heriot-Watt, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford Brookes, Sheffield, University College London (UCL), University of the West of England (UWE), Westminster, Queens Belfast), which also possess a wide variety of subject specialists in related fields alongside their planners, who are becoming a minority. …