Scrapping ERA would be inimical to universities’ interests—here’s why.

ERA may be an imperfect framework but as proving value attains more eminence by the day, research evaluation becomes critical to universities’ interests.

Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) may be flawed, but research evaluation, and its associated proof of return on public investment, has become increasingly necessary for Australian universities.

ERA is a much-derided national framework for evaluating research, comparing our research to international benchmarks, and incentivising improvements in research quality. It is supposed to inform funding and regulatory policy affecting research in this country.

Individual and institutional resistance has followed ERA ever since its inception in 2010. Despite universities committing enormous resource hours to their submissions, criticism dogs each review and each successive round. In 2015, commentators pointedly asked if university research was improving in quality or if university administrators were just improving at gaming the ERA. In 2018, external critics wondered why the administrative burdens of preparing ERA submissions were no longer a matter of any interest for the ARC—at the same time as its companion assessment exercise, the Engagement and Impact Assessment, was introduced.

Now, after another review of processes in 2020-2021, and in the lead up to the 2023 round of ERA, rumblings of discontent have arisen again. Time’s up, they say, as no evidence for the persistence of ERA and EI has been found, and the time and costs it incurs, as well as the value it generates, is unknown.

And yet, the fact remains that ERA is a response to public pressure to know what return is being received from public investment in university research. In a cultural and social environment increasingly hostile to and disconnected from the “indulged” and “out of touch” academic establishment, universities are feeling a growing pressure to prove that universities, and the work they do, matter.

Independent research evaluation is vital to that argument. What does quality research look like, and where and how are we doing it? The answers to these questions offer evidence for the relevance of universities to the disinterested Australian community.

Exhortations to entirely scrap ERA are inimical to the interests of the modern university. Rather, critics internal to the sector must focus on ways to improve the reliability, validity and public value of the exercise’s results, and on ways to reduce the administrative burden of the preparations undertaken for each new round of ERA.

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