A competitive streak that makes us all losers

August 20, 2004

The prospect of the latest research assessment exercise has left Bob Brecher feeling rather depressed.

As I started writing this column, I wondered if anyone would actually read it: after all, it is the summer vacation. And even if you're not away on holiday, surely you're too engrossed in the research you had no time to do while teaching to follow the latest news on what's going on in our universities? Of course, that assumes that your boss isn't one of those who has succeeded in "trying to squeeze out the 'self-directed time'

academics need for research and scholarly activity" ( The Times Higher , June 4). Or you might just need a brief break from hearing about the latest philistine assault on universities.

However, like you, I was reminded (and not just reminded, but depressed) by my subject association that nominations are being sought for membership of research assessment exercise panels for the new round. Yet again, we're being invited to cut our own throats.

As has been detailed over and again in the pages of The Times Higher , particularly in the wake of the last farrago, it's a matter of playing a game that entirely subverts the very idea of research. Most of us now aren't pursuing disinterested academic research at all, but are instead carefully trying to produce whatever "research outcomes" are going to earn the most Brownie points in the "right" journals and with the "best" publishers. And we know perfectly well that the whole thing is absurd.

So why are we going along with it again? In particular, why are we lending a legitimacy to the RAE business that we know to be entirely spurious? After all, we know well enough that the most effective way to run a tyranny is to get people to tyrannise themselves. Yet, here we are again, apparently accepting the argument that if we don't shaft ourselves, the Government will do it instead, which would be even worse.

Whether in relation to the RAE, the Quality Assurance Agency, the teaching and learning "academy" and the rest of it, we always take the line of least resistance, on the grounds that otherwise it would be even worse. But how could Government imposition be worse? What status, and in turn what power, would a system that was transparently and unequivocally imposed on us have? And what could be worse for us as academics than voluntarily giving up our self-respect, to the point where even to suggest that without it we're nothing is mocked by "realists" as hopelessly out of date?

But maybe all the people who have argued against the RAE are wrong: perhaps it isn't the disaster so many of us take it to be. Or maybe it really is awful, but to have government-appointed "assessors" instead of policing and disciplining ourselves really would be an even greater disaster than our helping destroy our own raison d'être .

Again, though, where are the arguments for this, the oldest excuse in the book? Perhaps, then, our complaisance is just the result of our simply not bothering to give basic academic values a second thought. But surely that can't be so, can it?

It seems there is only one possibility left, and it's pretty unpalatable.

Academics, one is driven to conclude, are by and large no less prone to professional deformation than anyone else, so that the prospect of status works as effectively here as it does elsewhere in public life.

Competitions, however ridiculous or insidious, must be won, at any cost. No matter that the prize money - always carefully "adjusted" to ensure that the pecking order remains undisturbed - will have to go on higher and higher transfer fees. No matter that the game will eventually destroy most of the players. We'll just carry on doing as we're told - even if we end up giving lemmings a bad name.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, Brighton University.

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