Sunday, February 22, 2015

How Has Research Assessment Changed the Structure of Academia?

Does measuring something change it?  In quantum mechanics measurement disturbs what is being measured, which is referred to as the observer effect. The same is often true in social systems, especially of course when measurement is attached to rewards. The UK and Australia have been conducting periodical research assessment exercises - the REF and ERA. In the case of the UK, research assessment started almost three decades ago. In Australia, the first research assessment was only conducted in 2010 but the founding of the ARC in 1988 and its independence in 2001 are both milestones in the road to increased emphasis on competition in research in Australia.

Johnston et al. (2014) show that the total number of economics students has increased in UK more rapidly than the total number of all students, but the number of departments offering economics degrees has declined, particularly in post-1992 universities. Also, the number of universities submitting to the REF under economics has declined sharply with only 3 post-1992 universities submitting in the latest round. This suggests that the REF has driven a concentration of economics research in the more elite universities in the UK. BTW the picture above is of the Hotel Russell, which the Russell Group of British universities is named after.

Neri and Rodgers (2014) investigate whether the increased emphasis on research in Australia has had the desired effect in the field of economics. They investigate the output of top economics research by Australian academics from 2001 to 2010. By constructing a unique database of 26,219 publications in 45 top journals, they compare Australia’s output internationally, determine whether Australia’s output increased, and rank Australian universities based on their output. They find that Australia’s output, in absolute and relative terms, and controlling for differences in page size and journal quality, increased and, on a per capita basis, is converging to the levels of the most research-intensive countries. Finally, they find that the historical dominance of the top four universities is diminishing. The correlation between the number of top 45 journal articles published in 2005-2010 and the ERA 2012 ranking is 0.83 (0.78 for 2003-8 and ERA 2010).


Johnston, J., Reeves, A. and Talbot, S. (2014). ‘Has economics become an elite subject for elite UK universities?’ Oxford Review of Education, vol. 40(5), pp. 590-609.

Neri, F. and Rodgers, J. (2014). ‘The contribution of Australian academia to the world’s best economics research: 2001 to 2010’, Economic Record.

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