World-class research standing of Hong Kong’s publicly-funded universities confirmed by international experts: UGC’s Research Assessment Exercise 2020
Results of the large-scale peer-review Research Assessment Exercise 2020 (RAE) clearly show that the eight publicly-funded universities in Hong Kong are in good standing internationally and all have considerably enhanced their research performance compared with the last RAE in 2014.
The University Grants Committee (UGC) released the results of the RAE 2020 on May 24, 2021. The exercise engaged 361 distinguished international and local scholars as well as local research end-users with extensive expertise in their respective fields.
The overall results are very encouraging. 70 percent of the research submissions were judged as internationally excellent or above, with 25 percent world-leading and 45 percent internationally excellent.
Embracing international best practice, the RAE 2020 is a criterion-referenced assessment evaluating the research outputs, impact and environment of the universities under 41 Units of Assessment (UoAs) based on different academic disciplines. 4,223 academic staff made 16,293 submissions, including 15,757 research outputs, 345 impact case studies, and 191 environment submissions.
Performance of Hong Kong universities compares favourably with their peers around the world, e.g. around 76 percent and 66 percent of submissions were judged to be comparable standard in the UK REF 2014 and the ERA 2018 in Australia.
Convenor of UGC Research Group, Professor Sir David Eastwood says, “The RAE in Hong Kong is by international standard as robust, transparent and rigorous an assessment of research as [those conducted] anywhere else in the world.” Sir David, who had overseen the RAE 2008 in the UK, is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, UK and current Chair of Universitas 21.
The exercise’s methodologies is different from RAE 2014. “But the results of RAE 2020 show that Hong Kong universities have enhanced their research quality substantially,” says Sir David.
From 2014 to 2020, Hong Kong’s universities devoted more resources on research. According to the UGC, the reported aggregate expenditure on research of the UGC-funded universities rose from HK$7,984 million in 2013/14 to HK$11,589 million in 2018/19.
RAE: Excellence and Accountability
A main goal of the RAE is to encourage world-class research and drive excellence. The RAE results provide guidance for the universities’ future developments in pursuing research excellence and creating more synergies among research, teaching and learning, and knowledge transfer activities which are the core missions of the universities.
The RAE 2020 results will also inform the distribution of part of the Research Portion of the UGC Block Grant to universities. “It is also a matter of accountability through the government to the taxpayers,” Sir David notes.
Delineation of universities’ relative strengths
By making reference to the RAE 2020 results, individual universities could identify areas that would be further strengthened and opportunities where areas of excellence could be built up to reach critical mass.
“Part of the exercise was to look at what kind of research had been done here and asked how we could judge it and compare it with research done internationally by international standards,” he says, adding that two sources of feedback were generated.
“Apart from the numbers, the panels compiled extensive reports with recommendations for the universities. This is expert talking to expert.” Professor Brink notes. “The universities will be able to draw on the reports to adapt their strategies as they see fit.” Professor Brink is the Emeritus Vice-Chancellor, Newcastle University, UK, and former Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
The international perspective
According to the UGC Secretariat, out of the 361 panel members, around 70 percent of them are non-local academics coming from almost 20 countries/ regions around the world.
“Nearly three quarters of the panel members are from overseas and all of the panel chairs are high-standing overseas academics. This matters for the rigour of the exercise,” Sir David says.
“The heavy weighting towards overseas panel members who are leading academics is what gives this exercise real weight,” Professor Brink adds.
Keeping up with global trends, RAE 2020 includes two new assessment elements: research impact (positive effect on society) and environment (the vitality and sustainability of the support for research excellence) “Hong Kong people should have absolute confidence that the research is not just outstanding in its quality but is also significant in terms of impact,” says Sir David.
Professor Brink also says “We aimed to assess what difference the research makes to people’s life, the welfare of the society and the public sector ... at sector-wide level.”
The RAE 2020 should not be read as a simplistic university ranking or league table because it does not reflect the universities’ distinct missions, roles, histories, and their particular areas of strength.
Professor Brink says the submissions by universities differed widely. “Universities made submission to different UoAs and different number of UoAs. We need to look at the size of the submissions – i.e. how many academics a university submitted into any particular UoA.”
How should the public read the results?
The research submissions are assessed against a 5-point scale. The guidelines and working methods were published by 2018 after extensive consultation with the universities and the panels. “The universities were parties to the agreement that these guidelines, methods and definitions would be used in the assessment,” says Professor Brink. “In each of the three elements: research outputs, impact and environment, there’s a formal definition [of what each level means].”
On how the public should read the results, “they should begin by asking questions in terms of the disciplinary areas, which are the UoAs,” Professor Brink notes. “Then when you look at the results, you will understand which university does/ specialises in the research in this field of work, what is the size of the research work they’re doing in terms of the number of staff committed, and what is the evaluation of their work.”
Robust and rigorous assessment despite Covid-19 challenges
The RAE 2020 is probably the world’s first such exercise that has been conducted completely online, with its robustness and credibility to the full satisfaction of all panelists as in physical settings, international experts say. Despite the mounting challenges brought by travel restrictions and quarantine requirements, it showcases UGC’s high level of adaptability and flexibility in its operations and the commitment of all panelists to high international standards.
“Everyone aimed to make it work,” he notes. “The only change was, instead of meeting physically for a one-week period in Hong Kong, all panels met virtually.” In the end, more than 140 virtual meetings with over 340 meeting hours, on 56 days were held from August 2020 to January 2021. It is essential that there was ample time for the assessors to discuss with one another. ”
“The UGC is satisfied with the process,” says Sir David, who had a role in RAE 2014. “I can compare both exercises and they both are rigorous in assessment and meet the international standard.”