With a select committee about to start looking into HE, Gordon Marsden calls for an RAE that rewards all-round excellence.
New century, new research assessment exercise. But will the 2001 RAE do the job of promoting excellence in an internationally competitive higher education landscape? Or has it become a manic, process-driven tumbril under which entrepreneurship and originality are crushed?
Certainly the RAE has attracted criticism. Some within the profession believe it encourages short-termism, summed up by historian David Cannadine's arresting portrayal of a "depressed professoriate.. battery chickens on overtime laying for their lives".
Others, such as the Commons select committee on science and technology, have argued that the RAE's mechanisms discriminate against collaborative research, between universities and between higher education and business. The fact that only 2 per cent of the higher education funding council's research money goes to generic research, plus widespread misgivings reported from universities after the 1996 RAE, add substance to this concern.
And in the cut-throat funding market, with dire warnings about a permanent sheep-and-goats separation between universities over research funding, it is perhaps predictable that the "transfer fee" scenario - using large salaries with few teaching responsibilities to poach academics from other universities to boost research ratings - has emerged and been roundly criticised.
So what is the answer to a far from flawless system? It is not to have an apartheid between teaching and research universities. That would be a recipe for a division between "brains" and "drones" and would do nothing to connect higher education with a new world of lifelong learning. We need a system that recognises the need for public funds to be accountable - while giving scholars the freedom to be creative.
Perhaps what we need is to integrate the assessment of research into an overall "higher education excellence audit" - in which both teaching and research can be broadly assessed. The new Quality Assurance Agency proposals for reporting the quality of university teaching move in this direction - but why not an overall strategy that rewards links between good teaching and good research and effective communication of both to a wider world?
In such an audit, there could be bonus points for university involvement in local communities and lifelong learning projects. Credit should specifically be given for interdisciplinary research that involves inter-university and international links. This should include links with further education and joint strategies with the new learning and skills councils and the regional development agencies. This is where I agree with Peter Scott, Kingston University's vice-chancellor, in that the imminent government announcement about two-year vocationally focused "foundation degrees" means the "distinction between further and higher education has become an anachronism".
This does not mean tearing up all the elements of the RAE. I do not have particular criticisms of the quality of the RAE panels - more than half of the members of the 2001 history panel are distinguished contributors to the journal I used to edit, History Today. But in a new world of the excellence audit, such panels would also include dedicated assessment of the broader communication of the work done, as well as of its intrinsic academic merit.
Above all, any new system must lift the sense of bureaucratic toil for little reward from research. Perhaps brief "work-in-progress" audits in selected areas could release "early outcome" funding for academics that would give them the freedom to go forward to the big book, instead of salami-slicing it into dull monographs to meet RAE deadlines. Money gained from research excellence could be ring-fenced to reward the "poor bloody infantry" - rather than allowing it to slip into general funding where it might bolster bloated university bureaucracy or mask bad investment decisions by management. We have GP commissioning restoring decision-making to the front-line in the National Health Service - why not thinking along the same lines for academia?
Better minds than mine can fine tune and road test some of these ideas. But what I believe, for the sake of the morale of academics and to square the circle between public accountability and fostering excellence, is that the present system needs a "back-to-basics" makeover.
Gordon Marsden was a lecturer in history at the Open University and is member of Parliament for Blackpool South and a member of the House of Commons education select committee.
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