Laurie Taylor column

February 1, 2002

Letters: Rankled by rankings .

My attention has been drawn to a letter published in your columns in which the vice-chancellors of Lancaster, Umist and York have questioned the reliability of research assessment exercise league tables based on the strategic non-submissions of "inactive" staff.

As vice-chancellor of the university with the largest number of "inactive staff" in the United Kingdom, I believe that I have an important contribution to make to this ongoing debate.

May I begin by questioning the word "inactive". The assumption by your letter writers is that this constitutes a homogeneous category. Far from it. Before the last RAE, this university undertook an assessment of the research predilections of staff. This revealed that staff broke into five categories: research active, research oriented, research minded, research inclined and research negative. It was decided that only the first category should be included in our return to the RAE. This meant that only 2 per cent of our academic staff featured in the actual return.

What our exercise demonstrates, however, is the palpable injustice of treating the remaining 98 per cent of our staff as research inactive when there is clear survey evidence that so many of them are at the moment actively engaged in thinking about doing some research in the near or distant future.

This injustice will be seriously compounded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England's decision to publish a list of research-active university staff based on RAE submissions.

Such a move would have the effect of placing all other staff into the invidious research-inactive category. I believe that this potential injustice can be remedied only by a countrywide survey of all those deemed research inactive so as to distinguish between those who are oriented, minded, inclined or negative.

These results might then form the basis for new league tables. Preliminary inquiries suggest that if this were done, then my own university would emerge at fifth position overall. We may not have many active researchers, but we probably have rather more staff who are actively thinking about doing something or other in the future without having yet got round to it than any other comparable institution.

The vice-chancellor
University of Poppleton

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