Letter: Our very own RAE of sunshine

January 5, 2001

It never ceases to amaze me that academics continue to attack the research assessment exercise ("Poisonous exercises", THES, December 22/29).

For those who enter the profession because research is their main interest in life, the RAE comes as close to a golden goose as academia is ever likely to provide. It is the source of countless sabbaticals, light teaching timetables, paperwork reduction and rapid promotion. How would academic life be without the RAE? I shudder to think.

Martin Cohen alleges that there is a decline in the quality of research output. I see no evidence of this. First-rate researchers are still publishing first-rate research. Moreover, the increase in competition and the RAE emphasis on peer-reviewed publications mean that publishers have now much higher standards. Publishers will not accept a proposal without two favourable peer reviews.

The information flow between panels and individual departments is not as poor as Cohen makes out. If research is assessed, only subject experts can do it - what other form of assessment would Cohen propose?

The so-called "cattle market of academics" is especially beneficial to the system. It provides rewards for extraordinary achievements. It creates a powerful incentive to produce outstanding work. What is wrong with freeing excellent researchers from most administrative and teaching duties if they make substantial contributions to human knowledge? What is wrong with allowing a "transfer market" to emerge that provides incentives for truly outstanding work that, given the low level of professorial salaries, the system would not be able to offer?

Without the RAE, the lack of rewards in academic research and higher education would encourage senior staff who have made their major contribution to settle down into a routine. The incessant demands of teaching and administration would swamp them and the incentives would be skewed against research. Serious people would go into other careers or take up chairs in the United States.

The criticism that the boundaries of RAE categories are arbitrary and discourage interdisciplinary research is partially correct. But it is not an argument against the RAE per se . It is not quite correct that the RAE is purely departmentally based; assessment areas can already cross departmental boundaries. Changes can be made to increase incentives for interdisciplinary work.

The categories of research output counted do seem arbitrary; in some subjects publication in professional rather than in academic journals is necessary to achieve international standing, but such publications do not count. Adjusting the rules would fix this.

At the heart of the doubts about the RAE is the ill-defined nature of the job. Academics are supposed to be superb administrators, perfect teachers, generate substantial research grants and produce world-class research. No person can perform 100 per cent in all of these categories. World-class research is a serious business. It requires an extraordinary degree of commitment, dedication and talent. The British university system has proven that it can produce it. It is the genius of the RAE system that it has provided such substantial incentives to peer-reviewed academic research.

Christoph Bluth
Professor of international studies
Institute for Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds

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