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Ask Anna – Who measures the quality of university research?

Ask Anna – Who measures the quality of university research?


“Who measures the quality of university research?”


When you are short-listing universities that you are interested in attending, you should pay keen attention to the quality of a university’s research. It might not initially make sense if you are looking at undergraduate degrees, but the quality of a university’s research can have a big effect on the course you take.

The universities that product the best research in their field develop good reputations amongst employers and the scientific community and as such, degrees from these universities carry a great deal of prestige. Selecting a university that enjoys a good reputation for your studies can often therefore have a big impact on your future career.

Not only that, but universities that produce the highest quality research also often employ the most qualified people in the respective fields. This means that you have access to the best minds as your teachers. Your course-mates are likely to have been attracted by the quality of teaching available, so by choosing a university that produces high quality research, your peers will quite possibly be capable themselves of producing work to a high level of quality.

A final benefit of attending a university that is well regarded for its research quality is that it is likely to boast the best and latest facilities in its field. Having access to high quality facilities, teaching and being surrounded by capable peers should make attending a university that produces high quality research very attractive. So how do you judge the quality of the universities research?

Different bodies have been established around the world to monitor research quality, and these are a good place to start.

In the UK, until the 2008 an exercise known as the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) was carried out approximately every five years. This has now been succeeded by the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The goal of the RAE, and subsequently the REF, is to establish methods to assess (and compare) the research of British higher education institutions.

REF is due for completion in 2014 but the results are not yet published. Information is available from the 2008 RAE, and many universities published the findings on their own websites. Search websites of UK universities you are interested in for terms like ‘research excellence’ or ‘RAE’ and you are likely to find the information you need. For your reference, the RAE quality profiles use a quality scale with four rankings, the top being 4*. This stood for ‘Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.’ Read more at the RAE website.

If you are considering studying in Germany then the research rating to look at is the new ‘Forschungsrating’. This rating system has been developed over eight years and was initially trialled over four subjects areas including chemistry, electrical engineering, sociology and British and American studies. Keep track of the developments at the Wissenschaftsrat (The German Council of Science and Humanities) website.

In the Netherlands, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences runs the Standard Evaluation Protocol, more of which can be read about on their website and it Italy, the Ministry of Education, University and Research runs ANVUR, the National Agency for the Evaluation of University and Research.

At present, the new German Forschungsrating and Dutch SEP do not make results available in the form of easy comparison tables, but Australia’s Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) programme does make results available by university, which helps you as a student to view and compare results. Here is the institution list for ERA 2012.

These research quality assessment methodologies do suffer from criticism, such as suggestions that many research publications were ignored by the RAE process due to researcher contract status. Furthermore, it has been proposed that the REF process could potentially discourage research that may take the form of long term projects and instead favour the production of many shorter research articles. The administration burden of such ratings are not usually appreciated by academic staff, as highlighted by the scrapping of the Agency for Research and Higher Education (AERES) in France, to be replaced by a system employing simpler procedures.

It is also possible to use traditional university rankings to help assess the respective strengths in research of institutions worldwide. One of the most influential rankings to review is the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), which is sometimes referred to as the Shanghai Ranking. This ranking is backed by the Chinese government as a method of benchmarking worldwide institutions, giving Chinese institutions clear targets of research quality to aim for. As the rankings are largely research-driven they are a good way of comparing the research strengths of institutions. Read more at the ARWU website.

Another prestigious worldwide university ranking is the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. This ranking system uses 13 performance indicators, which themselves are grouped into five areas. The research area of the ranking counts towards 30% of the overall ranking score and measures volume, income and reputation of a universities research. You can view the THE 2014-2015 rankings here. To view how each university performs on research alone, click on a provider. The top ranking university overall, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), scores 98.1 for its research quality.

So there we have it, if you haven’t yet considered looking at the research prowess of institutions you are looking at, try finding out how they fare in the various research assessments or rankings – especially in the subject area in which you choose to study. It may not be the defining statistic that seals your decision, but it could have a large influence on your study experience.

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