In “Opus versus output” (7 March), Nicholas Till asks, can artistic practice be research? “Original composition is research” was the mantra of composers on the research assessment exercise from its inception: indeed, it had been considered so by universities since the 15th century, and it was this principle that gradually allowed the admission of all practice- based creativity into the pantheon.
Till asserts that in 1996, “the quality of artistic practice was judged largely in relation to indicators of esteem”. I was a member of the RAE music subpanel in 1996 and 2001; the history of women composers in Western classical music long ago alerted me to the simple fact that “indicators of esteem” do not necessarily match up with “indicators of quality”. So I can testify that Till is wrong: the “old paradigm of the self-sufficient aesthetic artefact, judgeable on its own merits” was invoked in both of the assessment exercises with which I was involved.
The extent to which a musical composition should be supported by words when examined by academe is contentious. Till seems to believe such support is vital and claims that the accompanying statement of 300 words allowed by the 2014 research excellence framework is too short. He compares it with critical exegeses submitted by some PhD students in creative practice (“anything between 10,000 and 40,000 words”).
But is a long exegesis necessary, or even appropriate? It is certainly not a universal requirement at the doctoral level. (At the university where I taught for 15 years until my retirement, for instance, the composition PhD required an accompanying, separate but related research dissertation.)
As regards the REF, the 300-word statement, introduced in the 2001 RAE, was optional then and remains so: in the criteria for the present exercise, paragraph 71a states that a project “should be submitted without additional material where the output is deemed to constitute significant evidence of research”; the hallmarks of such research are “originality, significance and rigour”.
City University London
I find myself in agreement with Nicholas Till that “practice as research” has muddled itself into use in the UK. As I argued in “Art Practice and the Doctoral Degree”, a 2011 article for the art journal Afterall, the creative arts should look towards the professional doctorate, or doctorate by practice, used in psychotherapy and education as a better model for advanced study, since what is to be assessed is whether the practitioner has an advanced, critical and informed practice rather than whether the “output” has made an original, significant and robust contribution to knowledge.
From that starting point, one could perhaps develop a schema along Till’s lines to find an “alternative means of evaluating the merit” of professional artists teaching within higher education institutions.
Matthew Reisz (“Lines of investigation”, 7 March) and Nicholas Till both discuss whether artistic practice should count as research. The problem is, in my view, that “research” in a narrow sense is too often seen as the be-all and end-all of university excellence.
It has long been pointed out that this cannot be appropriate for a mass system of higher education. The criterion should be, rather, pursuing disciplines at the highest level. This includes scholarship; advanced teaching and training; production of new knowledge and its application and development; professional practice and consultancy; the advancement of higher education itself; and its dissemination to society as a whole.
We need a much broader and more balanced view of what universities are for.
Emeritus professor of psychology
University of East London