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Evolution in Evaluation: Major Updates from Carnegie Classifications and Research Excellence Framework

Nov. 7, 2023—Last week, the Carnegie Foundation and the American Council on Education (ACE) announced a new methodology for one of the Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education: the coveted R1, or very high research activity status. The announcement comes on the heels of the central body that directs research and innovation funding in the United Kingdom, UKRI, announcing decisions for the new design of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is shifting toward a broader and more holistic approach to research assessment. Now, the Carnegie Foundation and ACE are seeking feedback on the design of the new Basic Classification structure, which is undergoing a near-total overhaul, and changing the methodologies for calculating research classifications. Although the new classifications won’t take effect until 2025 in the United States and 2028 in the UK, the changes have lasting implications for measuring research strengths and, by extension, collaborations.

The changes and impact

One of the biggest changes is in determining research activity designations. R1 and R2 currently designate institutions with very high and high research activity, respectively. Historically, research activity has been calculated using a complex formula of distinct factors, notably breaking down research expenditures into those in science and engineering and those in anything other than science and engineering. The new research classification will condense the previous 10-metric formula to just two factors: research expenditures and doctorates awarded, regardless of the research field. Under the new guidelines, R1 status will be awarded to any institution spending at least $50 million on R&D and producing at least 70 research doctorates, with R2 levels beginning at $5 million for spending and 20 for doctorates produced. The new research classification would also introduce a new category: Research Colleges and Universities, which would include any institution spending more than $2.5 million on research. There will be no cap on the number of institutions included in any of these classifications.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the new R1 and R2 classifications would introduce an additional 28 institutions to R1 designation, while six would fall into R2 status. Notably, the new additions to R1 would include Howard University, which hasn’t been designated as R1 since Carnegie’s 2000 rework and is one of 11 HBCUs currently with the R2 status. The addition of the new Research College or University designation would also include one tribal college, Northwest Indian College.

Because the Carnegie Classifications have such an impact on the perception of institutions, the status is highly prized. R1 status indicates a level of prestige and research capacity that makes an institution attractive to potential partners, helps to recruit talent and students, and can give a competitive edge when securing funding (see the Sept. 12, 2023 3-Minute Read) while also lightening teaching loads and boosting research time and resources. If the new R1 classification continues to deliver these benefits, it will be a major boost to those institutions. With more transparent and accessible methodologies for the research classification, universities can be intentional with their strategies to attain a certain status, opening doors for more opportunities for growth and success.

Other classification adjustments

The Carnegie Classifications aren’t the only university assessment system getting a rework. This June, UKRI released a letter detailing its initial decisions on designing the next Research Excellence Framework (REF). REF analyzes research across universities in the UK on quality and output and provides insight into research impact and real-world benefits. The higher education funding bodies in the UK use REF to inform the allocation of public funding toward research, but REF also helps to map institutional strengths and provide a national picture of the research produced across UK universities. REF 2021 analyzed published or publicly available research published and then measured the quality of research outputs, the quality of research impact, and the quality of the environment to support research and impact. The next REF will be conducted in 2028 and will include an expanded definition of research excellence, changing the previously assessed elements from REF 2014 and REF 2021 to include people, culture, and environment; contribution to knowledge and understanding; and engagement and impact. Additionally, REF 2028 will impose no minimum or maximum number of outputs an individual can submit, aiming for a more holistic and inclusive assessment of UK university research.

Why it matters

Institutions set goals and map long-term plans based on widely accepted measures of research excellence. Both the Carnegie Classification system and REF play a critical role in assessing academic research and ranking institutions accordingly. When the rules of the game change, it’s crucial to understand how that affects one’s institution and to adjust the game plan accordingly.

Research classifications and assessments inform potential collaborations, partnership decisions, and funding opportunities. They set a standard for excellence, guiding universities worldwide in their efforts to expand the capacity for high-impact research. Keeping abreast of research assessment and classification systems worldwide is key to ensuring that academic research continues to progress and thrive.

We want to hear from you. What do you think about the new Carnegie research classification or the proposed changes for REF 2028? Let us know on our LinkedIn profile.

The 3-Minute Read is a UIDP member information piece and does not represent the opinions of our members or representatives. We welcome your comments on our LinkedIn profile.