The ‘university mission’ does not need metrics, says vice-chancellor

Prof Max Lu, vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, said metrics could inform decision-making but were not crucially important to the quality of teaching and research

The ‘university mission’ would advance unabated if metrics were ditched by the government, funding agencies and league tables, one vice-chancellor has said.

Professor Max Lu, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey and chair of the UK Forum for Responsible Research Metrics, spoke at a Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference on the best ways to reduce the bureaucratic burden in higher education and research.

Asked if research or teaching would suffer if agencies and league tables stopped collecting metrics, Prof Lu replied: “No, they wouldn’t suffer. I think the purpose and the mission of the universities and research organisations will carry on, irrespective of metrics.”

Prof Lu said data had the potential to “complement informed decision-making” because it could provide “a lot of insights”. Used with discretion, data-crunching “would help you to improve if you really do the right sort of reflection analysis, and use it properly”, Mr Lu opined. “League tables probably play a negative role”, he added.

Prof Lu reflected that although UKRI is leading a consultation on ways to reduce regulatory burden, the global research sector is grappling with the challenge of how to use metrics responsibly. “There is an intrinsic link between publication motivation and practice, and incentives and open research. And this is really, really, truly a global issue.

“The sector needs to understand what it values in research and in researchers, so metrics can be focused on measuring what matters rather than on what can be measured, that will really drive the mission and deliver the benefits of research.”

A government-commissioned review of research bureaucracy is underway led by UK Research and Innovation. The most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) cost the sector approximately £246 million. Earlier in the session, Anne Sofield, UKRI programme director of Simpler and Better Funding, explained the ways the funder may review its processes, including simplifying the data and metrics provided by researchers during grant monitoring.

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