By John Pickering 18/10/2017 3

Throughout the land, more than 7000 academics are awake night after night and suffering.  They are scrambling to gather evidence of just how great they have performed over the last six years.

A conscientious bunch, they perform this task with their usual attention to detail and desire to impress (I didn’t say they were modest!).  Ostensibly, this exercise is so that their institutions can get a greater piece of the Government research fund pie – the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF).  According to the Tertiary Education Commission PBRF is “a performance-based funding system to encourage excellent research in New Zealand’s degree-granting organisations.”  It may well do that, but, I contend, only by deception.

In what follows I am only concerned with the Quality Evaluation part of PBRF – that’s the bit that is related to the quality of the Evidence Portfolio (EP) provided by each academic. The data is all taken from the reports published after each funding round (available on the TEC website).

In 2012 the total funding allocated on the basis of EPs was $157 million with nearly 97% of it allocated to the country’s 8 universities.  This total amount is set by Government fiat and, here is the important point, in no way depends on the quality of the Evidence Portfolios provided by those 7000+ academic staff.   In other words, from a funding perspective, the PBRF Quality Evaluation round is a net zero sum game.

PBRF Quality Evaluation is really a competition between degree granting institutions.  I find this strange given the Government has been trying to encourage collaboration between institutions through funding of National Science Challenges, nevertheless a competition it is.

In the table we see the results of the Quality Evaluation for the previous three funding rounds ( 2003, 2006 and 2012).  Not surprisingly, the larger universities get a larger slice of the pie.  The pie is divvied up according to a formula that is based on a weighting for each academic according to how their research has been evaluated (basically A, B or C), multiplied by a weighting according to their research area (eg law and arts are weighted lower than most sciences, and engineering and medicine are weighted the highest), multiplied by the full time equivalent status of the academic.   In theory, therefore, an institution may influence their proportion of funding by (1) employing more academics – but this costs more money of course, so may be defeating, (2) increasing the proportions of academics in the higher weighted disciplines (some may argue this is happening), and (3) increase the numbers of staff with the higher grades.  I will leave it to others to comment on (1) or (2) if there is evidence for them.  However (3) is the apparent focus of all the activity I hear about at my institution.   There are multiple emails and calls to attend seminars, update publication lists, and to begin preparing an Evidence Portfolio.  Indeed, in my university we had a “dry run” a couple of years ago, and it is all happening again.


PBRF rankings


Now, I come to the bit where I probably need an economist (it is my hope that this post may influence one to take up this matter more).  Because it is a net-zero sum game, what matters is a cost-benefit analysis for individual institutions.  That is, what does it cost the institutions to gather EPs compared to what financial gain is there from the PBRF Quality Evaluation fund?  If we look at the 2012-2006 column we see the change in percentage for each institution.  The University of Auckland for example increased its share of the pie by 1.3% of the pie.  This equates to a little under $2M a year.  As the evaluations happen only every 6 years we may say that Auckland gained nearly $12M.  What was the cost? How many staff for how long were involved?   As there are nearly 2000 staff submitting EPs from Auckland another way of looking at this is that the net effect of the 2012 Quality Evaluation round was a gain of less than $6000 per academic staff member over 6 years.  How much less is unknown.

The University of Otago had a loss in 2012 compared with 2006.  Was this because it performed worse? Not at all, indeed Otago increased how many staff and the proportion of staff that were in the “A” category and in the “B” category. This suggests improved, not worsened, performance.  I think that Otago’s loss was simply due to the net zero sum game.

Much more could be said and questions asked about the Quality Evaluation, such as what is the cost of the over 300 assessors of the more than 7000 EPs?  Or perhaps I could go on about the terrible use of metrics we are being encouraged to use as evidence of the importance of the papers we’ve published.  But, I will spare you that rant, and leave my fellow academics with the thought – you have been deceived, PBRF Evidence portfolios are an inefficient and costly exercise which will make little to no difference to your institution. 

3 Responses to “Performance Based Research Fund: a net zero sum game”

  • The PBRF was conceived as a relatively light touch way of solving a problem that the ‘bums on seats’ tertiary education policy of the ’90s brought to the system; a low publication rate relative to international norms. But once the little old lady has swallowed the fly all hell breaks loose. That the institutions and government place so much weight on shuffling tiny amounts of money around is indicative of a new set of problems in the system and, in the meantime, we have $360 million of ‘research’ funding being tipped into a big black hole.

  • This post focuses on % shares of PBRF funding. Percentages are always a zero sum game (because, arithmetic!).
    The actual dollars are a different story. The PBRF funding pie grew from $129.5m in 2003/04 (that’s includes the old research top-ups), to $200.4m in 2006/07, $256m in 2012/13, $309m in 2017/18, and $315m budgeted for 2018/19. Thats about an 80% increase in real terms since 2003. Other public research funding has grown too. So its been far from a zero sum game over time. Its unlikely the taxpayer-funded pie would have grown so much without some process to assess quality and target funds accordingly – putting that into a cost-benefit assessment of effort on QE is a tough task!

    • Thanks John… don’t disagree. It’s always good to see $ go up for research and where that happens those responsible are to be congratulated. However, this post is simply about the quality evaluation and my contention is that it has no effect itself on the total dollars (unless there is evidence that the politicians are influenced by “more As and Bs” to up the $s in the PBRF budget) and so it is an exercise in trying to better the other institutions which in our small country I think is a wasteful and pointless exercise.