The rules of football are child's play compared with those of the research assessment exercise. While billions of pounds are at stake in both pursuits, one has regulations that must be understood by every pea-brained player whose head has thwacked into an opponent's once too often. The other is designed by committee to grasp the creative output of some of the world's finest minds.
In football, those rules and the grey areas that might be exploited are drummed into players by their managers. They are then applied in front of tens of thousands of spectators, every incident scrutinised by sensation-seeking hacks and recorded by unforgiving television cameras.
RAE proposals are compiled by groups of scholars who analyse the criteria and look at every way of maximising their return. They are then assessed by panels of their peers behind closed doors.
The pressure to succeed sees footballers dive with the slightest provocation in the hope of winning a penalty. In academe, those pressures push universities and academics to seek the same grey areas and indulge in strategies crafted to produce the best result for their department - and hence the most funding.
In both instances many fear the spirit of the enterprise, namely the encouragement of excellence, can suffer.
The ever-shifting rules of the RAE, the latest details of which will be announced shortly, make it a real test of intellect. Of course, Fantasy Football, in which points are given and taken away each week for every player's goals, assists, defending and discipline, only reflects the real sport's grey areas. But superimpose the tactics reputedly deployed during the RAE and the true absurdity of the game-playing in academe becomes stark.
All the tricks described in this article are based on real RAE-beating practices, some current, some old, reported to The Times Higher .
Biological sciences (
Physical sciences and engineering
Earth sciences (
Electrical engineering (
Political science (B'ham)
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Modern languages (
THIS WEEK'S GAMES
Newcastle 1 Blackburn 1
Newcastle played much of the game with the advantage of having 12 men on the pitch, having declared that as Patrick Kluivert did not score enough goals to be counted as a striker they should be allowed to replace him without him actually leaving the field of play. Staff whose research output is very low can have the wording of their contract altered to drop the word research altogether, making them ineligible for assessment and hence raising the average score for the remainder . Blackburn responded by revealing a club tradition that enabled them to field 13 men while insisting that technically only 11 were out there. College members in some collegiate institutions are assessed only if research active but are simply not counted otherwise, serving to push the average score up .
Manchester Utd 4 Crystal Palace 0
A goal late in added-on time gave United victory after the game was extended by 18 minutes to allow the home side to score. That goal was counted four times, once for each television replay. "In press" dates can be stretched beyond reason to ensure the required number of publications to guarantee a researcher a good rating is attained. A single piece of research can be repackaged and published more than once . Palace, meanwhile, contented themselves by declaring that they had concentrated all their bad defending and goalkeeping blunders into the one game thus ensuring they would keep a clean sheet in forthcoming fixtures. In some fields, weak members of a faculty or school can be banded together to be separately assessed before one panel, leaving their stronger colleagues to be defined as a new department to gain a better average before a different panel.
Bolton 5 Norwich 0
Bolton were awarded six penalties, converting five of them. The eagle-eyed referee, a Bolton player who had volunteered to help officiate, was able to detect Norwich infringements that everyone else missed, including a blatant handball in the dressing room at half-time. A sympathetic member of faculty who happens to have been appointed to the relevant refereeing panel can help . Norwich responded by sacking their goalkeeper and declaring that he would not be replaced so that in future matches, goals scored against them would no longer count. Departments that fail to gain high enough ratings can be closed to concentrate resources on those that made the grade, regardless of the impact on the balance of disciplines within the institution.
Chelsea 3 Manchester City 12
Chelsea went 2-0 up after poaching City's leading scorer, just prior to kick-off, and then counting their previous average tally for this game. Star performers attracted from other institutions can bring several years of their research output with them. The starting date on their contract can be backdated to fall within the RAE deadline. City may have failed to find the back of the Chelsea net, but they still recorded a remarkable victory by counting throw-ins towards their final score. Internally published "papers", such as a departmental pamphlet series, as well as textbooks, can be counted to boost the number of publications per staff to the four required.
Arsenal 6 Spurs 1
Arsenal won the match but then transferred the 83 points they had accrued in the English Premier League to win the Italian League, where leaders Juventus had only 82 points. Some departments can choose which panel to send their RAE submissions to, which means that the same research output can lead to different ratings and hence funding . Despite scoring once, Spurs came out with more fantasy football points after recording 17 assists to their single goal, a dodgy penalty. Second authors can be added to papers that they had nothing to do with to boost their individual scores and hence the overall departmental rating.
Middlesbrough 1 Southampton 0
Another dire 1-0 victory for the Teessiders, who have evenly divided their goals up between matches to ensure maximum points even if the games are painfully dull to watch. Research can be "salami sliced" to get the maximum numberof papers from a single project even at the cost of sacrificing its research impact . Nonetheless, despite their defeat, Southampton still won the title. OK, you can manipulate statistics only so far.