5* means nothing off campus

January 25, 2002

Obsessed with their RAE scores, academics are having ever less impact on the cutting edge, argues A. D. Harvey.

Revolutionary advances during the 20th century in different areas of science, particularly nuclear physics and biochemistry, were primarily the work of university-based researchers or academic staff at teaching hospitals.

Today, by contrast, despite so many university departments obtaining 5* ratings in the research assessment exercise, despite all the companies set up on campus to protect and exploit departmental discoveries, despite all the research and development contracts departments have secured from commercial firms, the university sector is making less and less direct contribution to the scientific revolution that is transforming our world. The creators of the microchip and of the new world order of information technology all have some sort of grounding in science, but few of them have impressive paper qualifications and almost none has been able to obtain an academic post in the normal way.

There has been a shift of focus in the kind of scientific research that is most glamorous, remunerative and world-changing, and the organisation and educational commitments of university departments militate against switching research at a week's notice from one field to another.

On the other hand, it would hardly be true to say that the IT revolution sneaked up on the university sector, since well over 30 years ago universities were among the first major users of computer technology.

It is also untrue that universities lack the funds to compete with private-sector salaries: people beginning careers in IT are not especially well paid, and the handful that begin earning mega-bucks within a couple of years do so only because their work is seen as generating even bigger mega-bucks for those around them.

The possibility that our best scientists are being rejected by the university sector at the point when they cease to be customers (revenue-yielding students) and want to become partners (revenue-sharing colleagues) is strongly suggested by what one sees happening in humanities faculties.

It is difficult to compare the research done in a university science laboratory with the research carried out in a scientifically oriented commercial enterprise, but it is quite easy to compare a literary biography written by a professor of English literature or a political biography written by a politics professor with biographies produced outside the university sector and without the assistance of public funds. All too often the campus masterpiece is not only less readable or thought-provoking than the private venture, it is also less scholarly.

In fact, if one looks at any of the major fields of research in the humanities in this century, there seems to be only one exception to the rule that the best work is being done outside the university sector, and almost always by people who have tried and failed to obtain permanent university posts.

The one exception is literary theory, and the reason for this is partly that nearly all scholarly energy in this field is expended on the assimilation of original work done abroad. And, of course, the main reason why university researchers dominate literary theory is that it is regarded with utter contempt by practically everyone outside the university system.

If Britain's universities do not stop congratulating themselves on survey results that show that more than half of them are much better than average, and start comparing the work they do with what is going on in the outside world, they may soon begin to find that other areas of their expertise are developing the same reputation as literary theory.

A. D. Harvey is editor of the Salisbury Review . His most recent book is Arnhem , published by Cassell, 2001.

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