PBRF gets ready for shake-up

December 2013


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A review of New Zealand’s tertiary education funding system, the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF), looks set to place more emphasis on commercialised research, a proposal that has attracted some criticism. Will this and other changes result in a new and improved funding process for tertiary education organisations?

The Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) is undergoing a spring clean.

The tertiary education funding process, which is based on the research performance of tertiary education organisations, is currently under review. The Government says it plans to increase investment in the PBRF scheme from $250 million to $300 million per annum by 2017 and to ensure it gets “the best value possible for this investment” a revision of the current PBRF system has been outlined.

The proposed changes include a clarification of the objectives of the PBRF as well as simplification of the research assessment process in order to reduce costs. There is also more attention given to recruiting and supporting new and emerging researchers. Particular emphasis has been placed on attracting research income from non-government investors and commercialising research.

Public consultation on the proposed changes ran from 26 August and ended 4 October, with 127 submissions received.

A spokeswoman for Tertiary Education, Skills, and Employment Minister, Steven Joyce, says the Minister is currently considering the results of the public consultation on the PBRF review and next steps will be announced in due course.

The origins of PBRF

Time flies. The PBRF, introduced in 2002, is nearly 12 years old. Since its inception, tertiary education organisations have undergone three rounds of the PBRF’s Quality Evaluation: in 2003, 2006, and in 2012 – enough to have given institutions, researchers, the Government, and other parties a chance to draw breath and evaluate what is good, bad and ho-hum about New Zealand’s system for incentivising high-quality research in the tertiary education sector.

Prior to the PBRF, tertiary education organisations received research funding based on the volume of equivalent full-time students (EFTS) at degree level and above. The lack of incentives for research excellence and private sector research funding, and the lack of public accountability for research funding were, in part, why this system gave way to the PBRF.

The original objectives of the PBRF were to increase the average quality of research, to ensure that degree and postgraduate teaching is supported by research, to make funding available for postgraduate students and new researchers, and to improve the quality of public information on research outputs.

Research performance through the PBRF is assessed on the Quality Evaluation – essentially an individual peer review assessment, accounting for 60 per cent of the fund – as well as the number of research degree completions and the amount of external research income, accounting for 25 and 15 per cent of the fund respectively.

Problems with the PBRF

In its consultation document, Review of the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) the Ministry of Education points out a number of measures that indicate an increase in tertiary education research quality since the first PBRF round in 2003, such as the increase in the number of research degree completions and the rise of PBRF-eligible external research income. It also points to the increase in citations to research publications produced at New Zealand tertiary education institutions.

However, in spite of the apparent success, a number of concerns have arisen over the past decade.

Despite the consultation document highlighting the increase of inter-institutional collaboration in indexed journal publications, many have expressed concerns that the PBRF Quality Evaluation has had a negative impact on collaboration between researchers in New Zealand tertiary education organisations.

In recent years Education Review has been following this aspect, and prominent voices from different institutions have echoed this fear that the current funding environment hinders collaboration.

Among them, University of Auckland’s Dr Trevor Thwaites: “The ominous presence of ‘the next PBRF round’ has, I believe, seen a growing tension between tertiary institutions and former colleagues in other institutions who now seem less willing to discuss their research and especially to divulge their research outputs.”

Russell Taylor from University of Canterbury agreed. “The strict boundaries that are placed on researchers working within the confines of their college or department restrict and inhibit the real potential that is in effect untapped, and until there is some allowance for cross-collegiate collaborations to occur, this unsatisfactory situation will remain.”

Other problems with the PBRF revolve more around reporting. Under the current reporting mechanisms, there is the opportunity for institutions that submit fewer evidence portfolios from high-performing staff only, which can give a poor reflection and comparison of the research quality in different organisations. The consultation document also notes that “collecting staffing data at a single point in time may also have unintended consequences for tertiary education organisation hiring decisions”.

Cost is also a key concern. The Quality Evaluation is expensive to administer for the Government, tertiary education organisations, and even the individuals involved. Universities New Zealand estimated the total transaction costs for universities and the Tertiary Education Commission associated with the Quality Evaluation for the six-year period between 2007/8 and 2012/13 to be over $52 million, borne mainly by universities.

Richard Blaikie, Otago University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Enterprise, agrees that the PBRF rounds are time-consuming and costly.

“For the Quality Evaluation, the time required for academic and general staff to prepare evidence portfolios, enter and verify research publication data and meet other submission requirements has also grown in recent rounds, so we support the principle of the current review to seek ways to reduce both the financial costs and time-consuming nature of the exercise,” he told The Critic.

In addition to cost, another problem is that, despite its objective of ensuring funding for postgrads and new researchers, the PBRF appears to be creating disincentives for tertiary education organisations to recruit new and emerging researchers. Newer researchers typically attract lower quality scores for their research than more experienced researchers, which means the latter group is favoured in an attempt to increase the amount of funding received. This means organisations are focusing on current research performance rather than future performance.

Another concern recognised in the consultation document is that the PBRF may not adequately reward organisations for attracting research income from non-government sources or engaging in research commercialisation.

Agenda for change

These concerns have collectively provided the rationale to review the objectives and policy design features of the PBRF. Consequently, the revised objectives proposed by the Government place an emphasis on reducing costs, increasing the average quality of research, supporting research-led teaching and learning, increasing university world rankings, increasing transparency, supporting the commercialisation of research and research that benefits New Zealand, as well as supporting the development of postgrad, new, and emerging researchers.

Among the suggested changes is the introduction of financial incentives to encourage the recruitment of new and emerging researchers. Other proposed changes focus on simplifying the Quality Evaluation to reduce transaction costs, and on strengthening reporting on research performance.

However, the proposed change to place more emphasis on the commercialisation of research is what has angered some in the academic world.

Dr Sandra Grey, Tertiary Education Union vice-president and co-chair of the newly founded Academic Freedom Aotearoa, says the Government’s plans to make commercial research the top priority for universities is a threat to their mission and undermines academic freedom.

Grey believes that while commercialised research is valuable to New Zealand, it needs to be balanced by research that questions and challenges business or government.

“Research for commercial interests already brings institutions the reward of additional research funding. There is no need to double the incentive by skewing public funding to favour private research too. Public monies should be concentrated on research that is for the public good, not only the private and commercial good,” says Grey.

The public good was also at the heart of open access proponent Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand’s submission. Its submission stated that while external funding is important, “it is essential that research outputs remain accessible to the wider New Zealand public, including commercial organisations that are better suited to benefit from those research outputs”.

“There is a risk that, unless the PBRF include a provision incentivising the free dissemination of openly licensed research outputs, the redefinition of eligible research outputs to include commercialisation income — and not commercialisation by New Zealand companies that do not provide a direct payment to the researcher or institution — will have the perverse effect of closing off New Zealand research to the companies that helped to pay for its production.”

These are just some of the concerns raised in the 127 submissions made during consultation, which now lie with the Minister for consideration. While no specific timeframe has been given, it is hoped that the PBRF will emerge revised and improved in 2014.