Spin Doctors go to work on PBRF

University of Taihape:  Doctor Doctor I’ve got a 1.7 on my PBRF

Doctor Spin: Never mind son, your Gumbootlogy results make you the healthiest tertiary education provider in the country.  Let’s talk about that, shall we?

Scoop.co.nz has all the spin from the universities and polytechnics this morning as they try and give the impression that they are the best.  At times like this I am ashamed to be an academic.  One of the worst of sins is to cherry pick data to make your self look good.  We are used to this from certain sectors of society, but we should expect better from our educational institutions. Unfortunately, the culture of self promotion above all else has taken hold in our hallowed halls.

For those who are unaware of what I am talking about, around 18 months or so ago all academics in the country had to put forward a “portfolio” to demonstrate just how research active they were.  This is the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) exercise held every 6 or so years. Groups of academics under government oversight then went about scoring each academic in a process that has taken 15 months.  The result is that every academic has been given a grade A , B, C or not research active.  The grades of academics in each institution are then thrown into four different formula – each has additional information about different aspects of the institution (eg numbers of postgrad students).  Four numbers result.  This gives Doctor Spin plenty to play with. The numbers are also what are used to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars of research funds – here in lies the importance of PBRF to the institutions. A number is also provided for each of the self selected academic units that the institutions provided to the Tertiary Eduction Commission.  If they don’t score well in any of the four overall grades (comparative to other institutions their own size), then they can pick a favourable number from one of their academic units and talk about that. More grist for the spin mill.

Academics are notoriously competitive – obviously a good trait when it drives them to produce better and better research. I certainly have some of that streak in me. However, it is not  helpful when it results in attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of the public as happened yesterday.  The PBRF is a complex system designed to find a way to allocate research funds and hopefully improve research quality.  Academics will argue until the cows come home if it does this fairly. It certainly is a very expensive exercise. It certainly focusses institutions on the importance of research, which is a good thing.  Remember, the teaching in our universities (not polytechnics) is required by law to derive from research.  However, as a small country where the combined size of all our universities is only that of some of the larger overseas universities I wonder if such a inter – institution competitive model is the best for the country?  Perhaps the story should be an evaluation of cost benefits of the exercise. Is this the best method of allocating funds? Such a story should also consider if the competition is enhancing or detracting from the quality of research – after all in almost any field experts are spread across institutions.  Collegiality is a major driver of good research – does PBRF hinder that?

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If you want to check out the PBRF results in detail your self you can download a PDF from the Tertiary Education Commission here.

Disclaimer:  If you think my skepticism about PBRF is sour grapes because of a “poor” grade, then you’d be wrong.

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