Research top-scores: excellently unexplained   

University science-related research just keeps getting better on ERA. Frank Larkins wonders why

 Excellent ERA: more apparent than real?: “Informed discussion as to whether research excellence in Australian universities is really improving is curtailed because the benchmarks are not available for independent appraisal,” Professor Larkins argues in a  new paper for the L H Martin Institute at the University of Melbourne.

Science stars: He points to prodigious improvements in the Australian Research Council’s Excellence in Research for Australia  rankings across the sciences with the number of universities rating above or well-above world standard increasing between ERA 2012 and ERA 2015 and again in 2018. In environmental sciences, the number of high-performing institutions went from 13 in 2012 to 30 in 2018. In biological sciences the increase was 13 in 2012 to 29 last year.  So how come, he asks, replying who knows?

No information is provided to the general research community as to what are the quantitative or qualitative world standard benchmarks and how they have changed with time. This lack of disclosure is a serious limitation on the capacity for informed debate and an assessment of the real changes in research ‘excellence’ over time.”

While HASS is humble: Also puzzling is the comparative performance of HASS disciplines. Education is up, from five universities above/well above world standard in 2013 to ten in 2018, built environment improved, from three in 2012 and 2105 to six in 2018. Psychology went higher in a leap and then in a bound, seven universities rated ERA four or five in 2012, 13 did in 2015 and 23 were above/well above the rest of the world in 2018.

But that is it, most of the eleven broad fields stayed much the same, while creative writing is down on its 2011 score and just 13 universities were top-performers in history and archaeology last year, compared to 17 in 2015.

“The assessments raise an issue as to why the science-related and humanities and social sciences trends are so different,” suggests Professor Larkins.

More methodology please: “The lack of transparency as to what are the world standards for each of the disciplines and how they have changed over time limits informed appraisal as to whether the reported improvements are real and credible. … The Australian Research Council has a responsibility to release more metric data so that independent assessment of the outcomes of this expensive and time-consuming process can be undertaken, Professor Larkins adds.

But there’s no rush: Professor Larkins adds overall ERA has worked, that, “universities have used the outcomes to make strategic research decisions to realign their research priorities, including staffing profiles and recruitment of the more productive overseas research students.” But gains made mean there is no need for another ERA for five years, at least.

If at all, in its present form. He calls for a “simplified” data collection methodology and including the future of ERA “in any review of the Australian higher education research system.” What a bit of luck that Labor’s Kim Carr wants Ian Chubb to do just that if the government changes.


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