Time to talk about the future of PBRF

Posted By TEU on Mar 22, 2018 | 5 comments

As part of the Voices from Tertiary Education project, Professor Jonathan Boston from the School of Government at Victoria University talks about origins of the Performance Based Research Fund and its unintended consequences, before sharing some initial thoughts on the future of PBRF following a government commitment to review the fund.

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  1. Add together the real time costs of PBRF and Marsden and you arrive at a very high proportional cost of preparing, processing, administering, evaluating, and meeting. Possibly as high as 1:1. i.e. a dollar spent for every dollar returned. The big winners say it is ok, but we already know who they will be. The big losers have a tendency to withdraw – especially from Marsden. The effect is to squander possible research capability to the benefit of a smaller array of, admittedly, highly productive people. Finding the balance in the tension between those options is what this is all about. But creating complex systems with a poor return on investment is certainly not the solution.

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  2. It is lovely to see the naivety of the PBRF system outlined. Policy that does not consider how management will use it is a folly of being aloof. As outlined by Professor Boston, the PBRF system is a dog’s breakfast and further video apologies for it are not necessary. PBRF has certainly increased show-pony research for the sake of a poor scoring system that greatly undermines the professionalism of researchers by treating them as income generating units for the management empires of the university. None of the PBRF money comes back directly to the researchers and those that are fully funded externally are assessed with every grant application that they put in.

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  3. A review will be welcome, for there needs to be a way to alleviate the weight of the process in so many aspects of tertiary administration and work. However, there are some scary alternatives to PBRF, and we must stay vigilant. Let us steer away from any secret sort of system where staff might be externally judged and have no insight into what is said about their performance. Let us make sure as well, that a new system will not somehow use our protestations about the process as a rationale for giving research a smaller place in tertiary education, or redefining as worthy only research which has immediate applied impact. Or worse, confirming that the principle role of the university is vocational. PBRF does give us some capacity to tell it like it is (or at least like we individually believe it is).

    Some of the benefits of the current system must be retained or shifted to capable hands. In amongst the brouhaha, at least, once every six years, young staff learn to think about their research work, and how it matters. They get (often) meaningful feedback from their peers and others in the university (in my university at least) on what they have done, how they can talk about it and directions in which they might consider taking their “platform” of research. They get training in what it means to be an academic. This is otherwise sadly missing in many tertiary institutions, mistakenly thought to be FOR PBRF. Research support, planning and reflection only seems to come out as a function of PBRF, when it should be a function of the tertiary sector. We must be vigilant to ensure this doesn’t disappear with any change in process.

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    • These are important considerations, Annemarie – as must be the experiences of those staff subject to bullying by those mandated to press for the maximum numerical outcomes in the PBRF rounds, to guide research outputs towards serving various agendas framed as strategic institutional directions, and to serve corporate identities articulated in various forms of business/market speak.

      While indeed newer scholars deserve good mentoring in what it means to be a teacher, researcher, contributor as critic and conscience of society and so on, there are many ways this career development might be undertaken – along with more sophisticated notions of the porous research/teaching/service connections that for many are not as distinct as the measuring tools of the regime appear to treat them as.

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What are your thoughts?