Caveats from the great exercise

January 3, 1997

A LITTLE caution is required against the rhetoric of "improved" research in United Kingdom universities. It should be remembered that the RAE panels were asked to take a prospective view of the assessment units: that is, they were to consider not just performance over the past four years, but also the potential for continued improvement.

It may well be that some proportion of the upward drift in ratings is the result of this prospective view, and, indeed that those departments that lost a grade did so for the same reason. Thus, a move from a 4 to a 5 may be a reflection of genuine improvement in research quality, but it may also result from a panel having decided that, although still a 4, the unit shows sufficient improvement and continued strength in recruitment and research funding that it is reasonable to assume that, by the time the next RAE is due, the unit will have reached a genuine grade 5 level.

Whatever the form the next RAE takes, therefore (and the instruction to take a prospective view suggests that it may be different from that conducted this year), those units that failed to reach the prospective level will find themselves down the scale again.

TOM WILSON University of Sheffield

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