PBRF creates race to stand still

Dr Grant Duncan, who sits of the Tertiary Education Commission’s PBRF Sector Reference Group, has criticised the PBRF fund for creating a Red Queen race – where the contestants madly scramble to stay in the same place – due to little real increase in the overall fund.

Dr Duncan, on his blog Politics of Happiness says that while it is widely thought that New Zealand does not invest enough resources in research, no-one had come up with any analysis that showed that universities were doing less than they ought.

“And certainly no-one has stated what the optimal level of research output – at any specified level of ‘quality’ – should be for any particular university. The PBRF has never come with a clear set of goalposts, to put it simply. Taken to its logical conclusion, the optimal arrangement for PBRF purposes would be an academic staff contingent every member of which gets an A. Not only would this be practically impossible, but any attempt to achieve it would jeopardise the development of the future generation of researchers and scholars – not to mention devotion to teaching.”

“The message of the PBRF seems simply to be that more – or at least the appearance of more – ‘high-quality’ research is desirable. Growth is good. The sky could be the limit, were it not for the fact that another effect of the PBRF is that the universities are now competing madly with one another to retain much the same real level of funding that they got in previous years.”

Dr Duncan acknowledges there is tension between academic freedom and the need to maintain accountability for the use of resources.”  However he argues that managerial interventions into the PBRF process such as those becoming common in several universities create an environment where PBRF becomes the rationale for an application of managerial authority, including a disciplinary threat, in order to produce more research and more income for the university.

“This appears to contravene the Education Act’s requirement that the governance and management of the university should give effect at all times to the intent of the academic freedom provisions.”

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