Marked problem of rewarding status quo 2

August 7, 2008

Both Steven Barnett (Opinion, 24 July) and Robin Wilson ("Wondrous games of logic", 24 July) speak for many of the research assessment exercise (RAE)-disenfranchised in referring to how we need some way for academics' contribution to the policy environment and policymaking itself to be recognised (Barnett); and that "there's a huge amount (of work) which you don't get any Brownie points for" (Wilson).

The key to this problem can perhaps be found in Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's brilliant dissection of the threadbare "marking scheme" approach to academic assessment. If you're saddled with a system that starts from the presumption that only what is easily quantifiable and classifiable counts, then the whole system becomes systemically distorted and quality compromised. This is precisely because its evaluation framework will encourage academic activity that meets these comparatively narrow criteria, rather than according at least as much credit to the blue-skies thinking, innovation and creativity that are essential if the limitations of status-quo thinking are to be challenged and transcended.

In the policy context, there are literally millions of pounds of research grant monies that fund projects that have negligible, if any, impact on government policymaking, yet such research merits high marks in the RAE.

In contrast, being at the centre of precipitating a global debate of a key aspect of modern culture - childhood; precipitating a national dialogue about the importance of play in modern culture, which was followed by a government announcement of hundreds of millions of pounds of investment in play spaces; and being at the centre of an early-childhood campaign that has led to significant changes in government policy - are given no "Brownie points" in an RAE-type process.

As long as the audit-driven ideology of normalising generalised assessment holds sway, then we will continue to have a research-funding allocation procedure that reinforces the status quo and discourages the fresh, innovative thinking on which a progressive, healthily evolving future depends.

Richard House, Research Centre for Therapeutic Education, Roehampton University.

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