PBRF review lacks substantial change.

The Ministry of Education has begun a six week targeted consultation (31 August – 9 October) on a range of proposed changes and options for strengthening PBRF, informed by the PBRF Review Panel’s report and recommendations. However TEU maintains proposed changes do not go far enough in fixing the broken system.

The Performance Based Review Fund (PBRF) Review Panel has released their report Toward the Tertiary Research Excellence Evaluation (TREE) detailing the proposed changes and options the Ministry of Education are currently consulting on, and a survey is available on the MOE website along with a range of supporting materials.

TEU has repeatedly called for the PBRF to be scrapped and a fresh look taken at how research in tertiary education could be better supported. TEU research and extensive consultation with our membership since the introduction of PBRF has highlighted the costly, unfair and disruptive nature of the PBRF process, including high compliance costs and administrative overheads; a six yearly treadmill for staff; intrusive processes; gaming of the system; and the misuse of results in the management of staff.

The review of PBRF by the Government provided an opportunity to re-focus Aotearoa New Zealand’s universities, wānanga, and polytechnics on delivering high quality research and for the sector collectively to work out more productive ways to allocate funding. However, the outcome of the PBRF Review is instead a solid defence of PBRF in its current form. There are some cosmetic changes including a new name (TREE), and shifting the next Quality Evaluation of individual academic staff research performance back a year – from 2024 to 2025.

But the basic mechanism – and therefore the experience of staff – remains essentially  untouched. Institutions will certainly be encouraging Māori and Pasifika staff to take part, given the extra weightings for funding that will flow to the institution from their work. And there is improved  recognition of the broad character of research, to better include Māori and Pasifika research and to recognise contributions to industry and in supporting the research of others. These are the most positive aspects. But all the onerous and unnecessary aspects remain: the six yearly treadmill, the individual as the unit of assessment, and the high transaction costs.

The headline from the review is a recommendation that the PBRF pool be increased by $100M from its current $315M – an amount that has remained static since the inception of the fund. The TEU always welcomes support for increased funding. However, this recommendation is not grounded in any of the other recommendations of the panel. The system envisaged by the panel would work in exactly the same way whatever the level of funding.

According to TEU Tumu Whakarae National President, Dr Michael Gilchrist,

“TEU is very disappointed that the panel has not recommended any changes to the essential elements in the design of  the current system, when there is such a strong basis for much more thoroughgoing reform, both from staff members generally and in expert advice and research received by the panel. Staff will be particularly disappointed that even modest modifications like an extension to the quality evaluation cycle and enlarging the unit of research have been ignored”. Gilchrist continued,

“The impacts of Covid-19 are very much ongoing and will continue for the (un)foreseeable future. Staff have had enough of unnecessary, often punitive systems like the current PBRF regime. One year added to the cycle is nowhere near enough to address this underlying issue. Staff will continue to compete as individuals, on behalf of institutions, for a fixed pool of funds”.

We need more positive, productive, and genuinely supportive systems for the future that recognise the essentially social and collaborative nature of research. Research is about knowing truths in common that we cannot know alone. That needs to be reflected in the basic design of the system.