Writer's block on enquiry

March 7, 1997

The research assessment exercise has replaced the art of learning with that of publishing agrues Svava Bjarnason

It would be interesting to find out how many research students are aware of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's research assessment exercise and, of those, just how many had real knowledge and understanding of the potential impact the RAE has on their lives.

A significant number of research students probably know that departments are graded by the RAE and that institutions are ranked according to those grades. But would the average research student understand the underlying tensions that the RAE creates? There is genuine value in considering how the RAE might affect a research student.

Different traditions of research experience are found among and between the various disciplines. Humanities and social science research students experience an environment distinct from their counterparts in the pure sciences in terms of method of selecting a research topic and the approach (team or individual) taken to complete the study. Despite these differences the tensions created by the RAE remain similar.

The United Kingdom has chosen to adopt the United States method of creating league tables to provide "consumers" with information. As a result the outcome of the RAE and its counterpart, the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA), is a public document, accessible via the World Wide Web and in printed form.

The RAE is all about status: for the institution, the department, the leading academics who publish and bring in research grants, in the marketplace with industry and employers, and, finally, for the research students based upon the status of the former.

Regrettably, rankings (which affect funding) create a rather limiting cycle as lower ranked departments are less able to entice either academics or students who might help them to raise their status and gain a higher ranking. Clearly there are excellent research supervisors and students across the sector producing high-quality results, but these are not easily identified via the RAE. Equally, this competitive approach often inhibits collaborative efforts between departments in pursuing joint projects. This may well serve as a limiting constraint to the breadth of studies which research students might pursue.

Related to the status issue is the much publicised activity of "poaching" top-ranked research-active staff prior to the RAE profile submission in an effort to boost an institution's standing. Research profiles, and often funding, will follow the staff member to his or her new institution. As a result, research students could be stranded midway through their studies without the guidance and leadership of the supervisor with whom they began their studies.

Are all research students applying for study aware of the problems or benefits inherent in the decisions they make as to which institution they choose? Even if they are aware, not all students have the flexibility to pursue study beyond their home area due to family or funding commitments. The latest HEFCE allocations may go some way to alleviate this with funds earmarked to encourage links with industry and other universities which may support regional research bases. Recommendations in the Review of Postgraduate Education (the Harris Report) may also serve to enhance regional collaboration.

Recruitment and supervision of students is another pressure point. Institutions submit in their RAE profiles the numbers of research students enrolled as part of the "volume measure". A second "quality measure" includes the number of research students who have completed their study within the designated time (weighted for three years for full-time study and six years for part-time).

Tensions here relate to increasing research student numbers. Prior to the last round of RAE submissions, some institutions chose to raise their research profiles by allocating significant amounts of funding to "research studentships". The potential difficulty is for those students who find themselves in isolated situations as the single research student in a department (often when departments are just beginning to target research as a priority). Research can be a lonely experience and opportunities to train in research methods and to share experiences with colleagues with similar interests are critical to developing ideas. The emerging tradition of graduate schools and concerted efforts of training programmes for research students go a long way to alleviate this problem.

But the increasing number of research students and the pressure to publish mean a double squeeze on the supervisors, a particularly stressful prospect for inexperienced academics. Academic staff are pressured to secure research grants which, in turn, enable them to bring in more research students which then provide the staff with a research profile in both publication and grant funding. The danger is that the academics are torn between their two roles and that they give less time and energy to their supervisory duties. The knock-on effect is that research students are forced to put their ideas in the public forum earlier than might have been the case before the RAE. This provides an opportunity to have our arguments tested before submission and viva which may increase the quality of the final thesis.

This raises two questions: are students being enticed by funding into places where there is inadequate supervision? Will this begin to create a more balanced distribution of research students across the sector, or will the "best and the brightest" still choose to study at the top-ranked departments? The positive side of this scenario is increased access to research study for students of all ages and backgrounds as institutions vie to increase their postgraduate numbers.

Supervisors are finding that time is their new master. Having to build their own reputation and profile requires increased time for personal writing, accessing grants and preparing papers to build their international standing. As a result there is less time for supervision of students and the possibility of lower quality supervision.

What should not be lost in this discussion is the reality that teaching is still a primary function of higher education. Supervisors (and to varying degrees research students) are responsible for sharing their knowledge and expertise in a learning environment. Scholarship relating to teaching and other aspects of professional activity is all too often given superficial treatment by staff and administrators who can ill afford the time and resources to pursue innovative conceptions of scholarship which are not rewarded through the RAE.

The RAE may be viewed as a relatively good idea which has now been taken to its logical extreme. It has tightened the reins and created awareness of issues relating to research, but perhaps now it needs to loosen the grip to facilitate a more balanced perspective. Finding the balance will not be easy.

A hallmark of UK higher education in the late 1990s is its diversity reflected in a variety of academic activities such as teaching, scholarship, research, consulting with industry and business and cultural activities. A different concept of scholarship which valued innovation, integration, practice, teaching, discovery, application and various other dimensions could lead to an even more dynamic sector.

This broader perspective would require HEFCE to acknowledge forms of measurement other than research primarily related to discovery, thereby furthering its recognition of the difference of traditions between disciplines. In this new conception, publications and numbers of research students would form only two elements within a significantly wider range of evidence of scholarly activity. This might enable academics and students to devote time to a wider spectrum of activity that would create an academic culture and ethos capable of leading UK higher education into the 21st century.

It is time for the HEFCE to acknowledge, through funding support, the dynamic synergy and scholarship reflected in these activities. The new conception of research which views scholarship in its broadest sense might begin to change the competitive atmosphere in which we currently find ourselves studying. Perhaps then we would be able to participate fully in an academic culture that viewed the scholar as learner and active participant, rather than as proposal writer and publisher.

Svava Bjarnason is a PhD student atthe University of London's Institute ofEducation. She is an independent research consultant in higher education and wasa member of the institute team responsible for analysing written submissions to the Dearing Committee of inquiry into higher education.

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