Catch a shooting star . . .

October 26, 1995

Huw Richards, in the second part of our series on the Research Assessment Exercise, looks at the transfer market.

More than a few academics are in jobs they never expected to fill as a consequence of the Research Assessment Exercise.

Take for example one social scientist who had been at the same northern university since the late 1960s. Then a colleague was head-hunted. "He said I was daft to be so loyal as my market value was probably about 50 per cent higher than my current salary. Shortly afterwards another university approached me with an offer in that range, my employers were unable to match it and I moved."

If the RAE is academic life's most fertile source of gossip, then its transfer market is fruitful in anecdote. As Tom Wilson, head of research at the Association of University Teachers, says: "There is always more movement in the years before Research Assessment Exercises." But hard evidence is difficult to come by. If university X recruits Professor Y it may simply be replacing a retired professor. The new recruit may want to live somewhere more convenient or join a department where his or her own interests are strong.

"Even if there were no RAE money in it, universities would still want strong researchers for reasons of reputation or academic quality," argues Dennis Kavanagh, who exchanged his chair in politics at Nottingham for one at Liverpool.

Concern that the academic transfer market was destabilising the system led to the announcement by Graeme Davies, chief executive of the Higher Education Council for England, that departments would not be assessed simply on the basis of their line-up on March 31 1996, but on their longterm research culture and potential. But, as Ron Johnston, former vice chancellor of Essex University, puts it: "No matter how good your research culture is, they can hardly give you a 5 if all your good people have gone to other universities."

The most spectacular action, prompting comparisons with the football transfer market, has been at professorial level. Professor Kavanagh was delighted to hear that on the radio he was being equated with Liverpool FC's Pounds 8.5 million striker Stan Collymore, also acquired from Nottingham, even when his secretary pointed out that Collymore is currently reduced to the substitutes' bench. He notes: "When I first came into academic life, you hardly ever saw a professor from one university move to another. Now I reckon a dozen professors of politics have gone from one chair to another in the space of 18 months."

Supply does not match demand. Howard Newby, vice chancellor of Southampton believes the shortage of "top level talent" is "probably because of the 'lost generation' who were squeezed out in the late 1970s and early 1980s."

The rewards and leverage available to "superstar players" are considerable. One university awarded a top social scientist a salary rumoured to be over Pounds 60,000, with the recipient on campus only one day a week and spared contact with undergraduates. A member of the appointments panel recalls the telling fact that the appointee brought sufficient funding and promise of RAE points for the institution to make a profit on the deal.

Professor Kavanagh points to appointments made without posts being advertised or external assessors involved. He also notes the near-universality of New Professor Funds. "These provide equipment, carpets, research leave and travel." Very nice for the recipients - a touch galling for existing professors offered no such privileges.

The new universities, needing to build their research record to win funding, have made their own contribution. "If you don't have researchers, you have to go out and buy them," says Tudor Jones, head of physics and astronomy at Bradford University. Gerald Bernbaum, vice chancellor of South Bank University, which is aiming to build up research as a cultural change as well as a response to RAE, says most of his new appointments "have come from old universities. We haven't broken our professorial scales or targeted specific people, although we have used headhunters once or twice."

The new universities, with relatively little research funding built into budgets or expectations, have little to lose. But they have had a considerable knock-on effect on some older institutions, not only taking their staff but raising the price of those who remain. Professor Johnston says: "Heads of department get members of staff telling them they've been head-hunted and offered far more money. If you can't afford to lose that member of staff, what do you do?" Some departments have been seriously depleted. Alan Jenkins, professor in the educational methods unit at Oxford Brookes University, has found one geography department which has lost six members since December 1994. Hull's 5-rated politics department has lost several quality performers, most recently Juliet Lodge. Academics outside the star category, facing heavier teaching and administrative loads to accommodate imported heavyweights, may well ponder the price of loyalty.

Younger academics, however, may be grateful. Jeremy Black, recently appointed professor of history at Exeter, says: "By persuading institutions to prioritise researchers rather than, say, bricks and mortar, it has ensured that a lot of young researchers have been given jobs earlier than would otherwise have been the case."

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