While some observers are predicting that next year's research assessment exercise will be the last, the man most likely to have the Government's ear on the subject does not agree. "I would bet a fairly large sum of money that the process will continue," said Brian Fender, who takes up the post of chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England on Monday.
He adds: "It isn't just a matter of accountability for large amounts of public money. There is no doubt that the assessment exercise has enhanced quality. We need a means of looking at what research institutions are offering and the quality of what they are delivering. This isn't to say that it can't evolve."
Evolution rather than dramatic change looks likely to be the basis of the Fender regime. "One of the achievements of the last few years has been to make the allocation process more transparent," he says. "That must be maintained. I don't expect any change in methodology, but the world is changing constantly and we must reflect and respond to that. The big question is one of developing mechanisms that allow evolution in a period of consolidation. It is not possible or desirable to freeze the system at 1993 levels."
He said that he accepts the Government decision to leave quality control in the hands of the institutions. 'I see no problem with a single agency. The debate must now focus on making teaching and learning better.'
Anyone going into a new job takes with them some of the baggage of past roles. Professor Fender's directorship of the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble reinforced a conviction of the importance of European contacts and links for the British system, and also helped him develop his own management style. "There were around 500 people in a complex of buildings," he recalled. "It was very easy to walk around and be available for people to talk to. Keele was larger, but the same point applied. Being available means you hear the views of a wide range of people with a variety of functions."