What “world class research” means: its really going to matter

The Go8 was alone among the lobbies in commenting on the Australian Research Council’s plans to improve its research performance metrics (CMM yesterday)

 The Eight likes what it sees: First up the Go8 took the opportunity to remind us that its members are “the nation’s heavy lifters when it comes to quality research with impact” but went on to support proposals to reduce administration and increase transparency.

“This is particularly important, given the recent introduction of enhanced research performance requirements in the Threshold Standards for universities and the need to benchmark rigorously against these standards. Only in this way can we ensure that Australia’s university sector remains world-leading,” CEO Vicki Thomson said.

What this is about: The requirement Ms Thomson refers to is in the new HE Standards Framework legislation. It is for a university to undertake research in at least three, or 50 per cent of fields it teaches, which is “ ‘world standard’ measured using best practice indicators.”  The Tertiary Education Quality  and Standards Agency, which enforces the standards, previously stated it liked using “results from Excellence in Research for Australia or any comparable evaluation in Australia, and from comparable national and international research assessment exercises,” (CMM April 15).

But “world standard” is not so great: As used in the ARC’s Excellence in Research for Australia, research output rating world standard means average. And that’s compared against global discipline output rather than just the real competitive set – Canada, China, the EU, UK and US.

So, the definition is going to change:  The ARC proposes that experts revise the rating scale, citation and peer review benchmarks, plus “the definition and appropriateness of ‘world standard’ “.

No problem for the Go8: But it could be for universities without broad research bases, including institutions that otherwise meet criteria to acquire, and keep, university accreditation.

Nor for the minister: Alan Tudge told the Universities Australia conference (CMM June 4) that 39 comprehensive universities “may not be an optimal model for the quality of teaching or research … we need to start a conversation about how we can support greater differentiation and specialisation.”

That’s teaching ornot teaching and research.

How the ARC defines “world standard” is going to be very important.