Blair steps into RAE row

June 9, 2006

Yet another policy rethink is on the cards. Anna Fazackerley canvasses v-cs' reactions

Tony Blair has personally intervened in Whitehall wranglings over research funding, making it possible that the 2008 research assessment exercise will be axed after all, The Times Higher can reveal.

The government consultation on how to radically overhaul the current assessment exercise was due to be published this Wednesday, but at the last minute it was held back by the Treasury.

The Times Higher revealed last week that the consultation document would bring an end to speculation that the forthcoming 2008 RAE would be cancelled.

About a third of vice-chancellors would welcome such a radical move, but the rest are loathe to axe the exercise after months of intensive planning and expensive recruitment campaigns.

This week's unexpected delay has prompted alarm that the document may have been derailed. The vice-chancellor of one research-oriented university said: "We have picked up that Blair is siding with the Treasury in trying to get changes to the 2008 RAE. Something is definitely going on and I am very concerned."

He added: "I think there has been some last-minute negotiation by certain vice-chancellors."

Rick Trainor, principal of King's College London, argued against a U-turn. He said: "Our view is that planning for the 2008 RAE is too far advanced for it to be sensible to scrap it. Part of the argument against the current system has been the large amount of time spent on it - but a great deal of that time has already been spent."

Another university head said: "There have been all these markers laid down to suggest that there won't be any change in 2008. It all had the feel of a done deal to me, and that made me very uncomfortable."

University leaders said that the Treasury and No 10 may be concerned that if the 2008 exercise went ahead it could be years before any new model could be brought into play. Vice-chancellors are adamant that the exercise must inform funding decisions for at least three years for it to be worthwhile.

But critics of the RAE will argue that going ahead with it will be a very costly option.

Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol University, said: "I think the burden of administration and the perversion of planning far outweighs any benefits it has."

However, Shirley Pearce, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University, said: "Any in-depth process will cost a lot of money. I think the sector ought to be more concerned about whether the process is the right one."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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