WA vice-chancellors were knocked for six last week when the state government sprang a structural review on the sector. Its ostensible goal is to test the ground for a merger of four West Australian universities (Curtin, Edith Cowan, Murdoch and UWA) on the basis that a combined behemoth would somehow “rocket up global rankings”.

The mooted merger is both an egregious example of the rankings tail wagging the strategic dog, and a symptom of a deeper malaise – the growing disconnect between Australia’s conversation about research, rankings and the priorities of its university sector, and the far more evolved international trends in relation to research cultures, funding, evaluation and assessment.

On its own terms, the merger is also a proposal with a vanishingly small prospect of success. The quantitative elements of international league tables are volume-normalised and the final rankings are heavily influenced by indicators of prestige and reputation. WA’s geographical disadvantages in visibility won’t be overcome by artificially blending the complementary characters, missions and brands of its institutions into a homogenized, rankings-ready pulp.

Watching these debates unfold as two analysts of research systems – one an Australian academic who has spent a large proportion of their career working in Europe; the other a British academic and frequent visitor, with strong family ties here – it feels to us like the Australian discussion is missing the point.

Australian universities have pursued higher rankings because their influence on international student recruitment drives short term financial gains. But this focus misses the broader opportunities that come from understanding the unique qualities and strengths of institutions that rankings inevitably miss. It ignores opportunities to better understand impact and strategically focus resources where they can benefit research qualities and flexibility.

With the postponing of ERA 2023, the Sheil review of the ARC, the Universities Accord consultation, and calls for a broader review of the Australian R&D landscape, it’s an opportune moment for Australia to rise above the pedestrian rankings game and engage more actively with debates underway elsewhere.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen a step-change from sporadic grumbles about metrics and league tables to more holistic and strategic interventions. These include the 2013 San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), the 2015 Leiden Manifesto, and the UK’s Metric Tide review. The most significant recent development is the launch of the Coalition on Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA), made up of over 400 universities, funders and others who have committed to experiment with new approaches and implement reforms to research assessment within five years. This is not a theoretical discussion – it is already shaping research funding and priorities, particularly in Europe.

While Australia ponders life after the ERA, similar debates are underway in the UK through its Future of Research Assessment programme. New Zealand’s Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) has been postponed, with renewed calls for its abolition. Heated debates are ongoing in Spain and Italy about assessment systems seen as too restrictive. Sweden and Norway are looking to adopt expanded frameworks, and we’ve seen the emergence of FOLEC, the Latin American Forum on Scientific Evaluation, and the Dutch National Recognition and Rewards Programme.

In Australia, the picture looks rather different. Only one university (Melbourne) and one funder (NHMRC) have signed up to DORA in the decade since its launch (compared to more than 50 universities and almost every funder in the UK). Not one Australian organisation is yet listed as a member of CoARA. Having been, in the past, a vocal player in international debates around assessment, impact, and research management, Australia now seems conspicuously absent and risks being left behind.

And with concern over the burden and bureaucracy of ERA dominating discussions, are we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Will we end up axing Australia’s evaluation framework (imperfect as it is) at precisely the time when other countries are thinking more creatively about the progressive possibilities of assessment in shaping the research systems and cultures they want and need?

Given the federal government’s capacity to intervene in funding at the level of individual grants in terms of the “national interest” –  even if these powers will now be watered down – it seems perverse to simultaneously surrender one of the strongest levers of influence that government has to pursue distinctive national interests in the direction and priorities of Australian research at a systemic level.

If ERA and EI are abolished, what will fill the vacuum they leave behind? Government and public funding agencies ceding ownership won’t cause that space to disappear—it will instead be occupied by unaccountable, commercially-motivated providers of league tables and research metrics. This is effectively what’s now happening in WA.

Elsewhere, the links between the qualities and impacts of good research, and healthy, vibrant research cultures are being explicitly drawn and being tackled in concert. And there are significant moves away from “data driven” towards “data informed”, mixed-method frameworks for research evaluation.

Australia has deep reservoirs of expertise to draw on here. The Association of Interdisciplinary Meta-research and Open Science (AIMOS), which emerged in 2019 as a grassroots movement of Australian researchers working to analyse and transform research cultures, has rapidly expanded into an international network. In Perth, work at the Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative is articulating a vision of what universities are for in the 21st century and how we can measure and evaluate progress using new technical capacities and data.

Our national research funders and learned societies have vast experience in the design, delivery and evaluation of assessment systems. There are pockets of researchers, research managers and librarians across Australia who are plugged into these international debates, including through organisations like the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS), which recently launched its ‘More Than Our Rank’ initiative, whereby universities can showcase important qualities being neglected by international rankings.

Australia, of course, has its own distinctive priorities which are not well reflected in the rankings KPIs. Our unique geography and geopolitics must be reflected in any articulation of research agendas. The introduction of the Indigenous Fields of Research Codes is one important strand of such work, contributing to the ongoing process of reconciliation, and which must therefore be led by Indigenous voices. Opaque commercial rankers outside Australia have neither the interest nor legitimacy to navigate such cultural sensitivities.

In the UK, Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse has just handed down a government-initiated independent review of the research landscape. This calls for a significant uplift to public investment and a long-term strategic framework which would guide efforts to reform the funding system and reduce bureaucracy. It is  also an implicitly daming critique of a government which has shown more interest in tweaking and tinkering with the fine detail of the R&D system than in providing a stable vision & investment.

It’s an argument likely to resonate with Australian audiences, who may wish for a Nurse-style review of their own. With multiple reviews in train there is now a generational opportunity to re-articulate the vision, purposes and priorities of the Australian university and research system. Realising the potential of this moment will require us to engage with renewed energy in international initiatives, like CoARA.

The Australian research dog has an excellent nose for qualities and impacts of all kinds. It’s time to lead from the front rather than being led by the tail.

Cameron Neylon is Professor of Research Communications in the Centre for Culture and Technology within the iSchool at Curtin University’s School of Media, Creative Arts, and Social Inquiry. He is co-lead of the Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative.

James Wilsdon is Professor of Research Policy at University College London and Director of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI).


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