Bye bye PBRF.

By Dr John P Egan, University of Auckland

The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) has announced an advisory group has been created to review the overall university system in Aotearoa. As a result, the looming Performance-Based Research Fun (PBRF) round has been cancelled.

As the national union of academic and professional staff in the tertiary sector we applaud this decision. Our position has long been that the workload burden generated by the PBRF process impedes (rather than enhanced) the sector’s research productivity.

What is PBRF

The purpose of PBRF is to “increase the quality of research by encouraging and rewarding excellent research in Aotearoa New Zealand’s degree-granting organisations.” However, despite its name PBRF “does not fund specific research projects directly, but provides bulk funding to support an organisation’s research capability, including postgraduate-level teaching support” (TEC, 2024)

Institutions provide voluminous reports to the Fund. Each reports’ three components are:

  1. Research Degree Completions (25 per cent)
  2. External Research Income (20 per cent)
  3. Quality Evaluation (of research outputs; 55 per cent)

The first two reflect core activities for any tertiary institution granting postgraduate degrees and efforts to capture these at an institutional level. We could critique the current metrics for these two components, but there is an obvious relationship between each and its relevance to tertiary sector’s research capacity. To a large extent, these are reporting against straightforward criteria of the sort most institutions capture regardless. There is an administrative burden, but not an onerous one.

Research degree completions are weighted towards doctoral degrees, followed by masters by research, then other postgraduate qualifications where students fulfill a research component.

External research income is a three-year rolling average of aggregate competitively acquired external research funding, with international funding sources usually weighted more heavily than New Zealand funding sources.

The Quality Evaluation is what largely (at 55 per cent) determines an institution’s global PBRF score. It is also the element that requires the most work from tertiary staff.


In broad terms, each eligible research active academic staff member completes a portfolio against the various criteria. Each faculty reviews, revises and massages each person’s portfolio for these data to roll up to the university-wide mahi. Each institution has a PBRF oversight committee and lead, responsible for reporting to TEC. Staff portfolios are judged to be A (outstanding), B (excellent), C (limited impact), R (no impact). New and emerging researchers rated C or can be designated as such, leading to a somewhat higher ranking. TEC convenes peer review panels to evaluate the data submitted by institutions and calibrated their score. The score determines how much PBRF funding is awarded each institution.

What is not captured anywhere, is the voluminous amount of additional workload each PBRF round is for staff—primarily academic staff, but also general/professional staff. It is not unusual for staff to be asked for repeated revisions to their portfolio, changes that often do not change that staff member’s overall quality category.

Effectively, institutions spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of additional administrative work, in order to access millions of dollars of additional funds. The PBRF process generates an onerous amount of non-research mahi, particularly from research active staff. When they could be doing research.


A better way to increase the quality of research in Aotearoa would be to broaden and deepen research funding—which is already quality assured through peer review of both grants and research outputs—in particular, addressing some of the striking gaps in our current range of funding agencies.

This could include:

  • Research funding for the humanities and social sciences. Currently the Marsden Fund facilitates early career and senior researchers, but there is no trajectory between these two stages for those of us working in social or cultural disciplines.
  • More funding for research training at the postgraduate level, including scholarships and grants at the masters level for coursework programmes with a research component (the more common postgraduate trajectory in Aotearoa) rather than research only masters degrees.

Changes such as these would do a better job of developing and nurturing the research career trajectory of all academics, beginning with funding at masters level.