Mything, presumed lost

April 3, 1998

Reading last week's letter (THES, March ) from the unknown market warrior who believed that his/her research assessment exercise rating warranted a pay promotion above less successful (and, by implication, less hardworking) colleagues brought home the extent to which universities are so susceptible to myths.

There is, for example, the myth that high intelligence implies high-mindedness or the myth that significant ability in an academic subject imparts managerial acuity.

A third myth, entrenched to the point of orthodoxy, is that knowledge of a subject is somehow also the ability to teach it.

The defining characteristic of successful myths is their ability to achieve a surface plausibility that makes evidence slide ineluctably off, to leave them untarnished by fact or reason.

Now, however, we have a new one, aye, and a foolish but persistent one: the RAE myth.

This is the idea that a department gaining a 5-star rating could stand alone as a commercial research institute.

The fact that these departments succeed by massive subsidy and, as importantly, by the acumen of departmental heads in seeing that the RAE is essentially a matter of propaganda, escapes some so effectively that the myth of independent achievement is generated and they suddenly see themselves as sacrificed to the their colleagues' tardiness.

I do not say that the subsidies appear without hard work or that the propaganda is bull, but that 5-star departments are frequently the product of intentional strategic planning (ie special resource allocation) because the RAE requires institutions to play a certain game for money.

But the game has to be kept in proportion, for it is the most subtle and the most insidious destroyer of institutional autonomy. RAE, like student-counting, is only another accounting game. When one game pays off in hard cash and academic and research posts, it is usually at the cost of academic and research posts in the less marketable areas of the curriculum. Get the balance wrong, succumb too easily to the myth-pumps provided by the key players, and the university disappears.

If one ignores the level of external funding for specially favoured areas of the curriculum, and glosses over the redistribution of internal funding, some staff will gain the idea that the RAE results are a matter, solely, of their own efforts.

For many cases, then, paying staff according to the RAE rating of their department is like promoting a Titanic survivor for the hard work and intelligence applied to gaining the use of a lifeboat.

Andrew Morgan. University of Wales Swansea

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