Allegations of supposed prejudices have been levelled at the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) after recent analysis identified links between the performance of an institute in the RAE and how many of its academics judged on RAE panels.

An anonymous academic spoke to Times Higher Education after concluding in a study that some 90% of the judges sitting in RAE panels were employed by the 50 highest ranking universities. The disparity becomes even more obvious when examining individual units of assessment, with thirteen panel members for chemistry coming from the top 50 ranked universities in Times Higher Education’s Table of Excellence and only two judges coming from the lower ranked institutes. In response to these suggestions of bias RAE Manager Ed Hughes claimed that “Since panel members were nominated by professional bodies in their field and were appointed on the basis of their expertise in particular subject areas, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the institutions from which they were drawn performed strongly.”

‘Some 90% of the judges sitting in RAE panels were employed by the 50 highest ranking universities’

Whether judges on RAE panels may be prejudiced towards their institutes is debatable. Arguably the highest calibre of research is conducted at the top universities, thus it is to be expected that panels members be chosen from the highest ranking institutions. Yet one could also level the accusation that members are more inclined to reward their own universities, unconsciously or otherwise; if the majority of judges are drawn from the top ranking universities, it is those institutes which will benefit. However, with a huge amount of money (£1.5 billion) dispensed every year for research purposes it may seem unsurprising that the RAE could come under speculations of corruption.

One may like to consider the accusations of prejudice alongside the news that top universities have recently suffered marked cuts to their funding. Some 53 institutes, including Cambridge, Imperial College London and also the University of Sussex will have their budgets slashed after being allocated below-inflation increases in research and teaching funding. This can be viewed as a result of changes in the RAE aiming at allocating funding to a wider number of universities. In the institutes whose budgets have been reduced humanities, the social sciences and languages have been the most significant casualties following government decisions to prioritise traditional science subjects. Sussex University has lost £1.15 million in total for the academic year 2009-10.

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