Cutting edge is decidedly blunt

December 3, 2004

Academe's audit mania means the British scholar can no longer write textbooks, says Steven Kennedy

The 2000s should be glory days for British academia. Instead academia faces a real danger of declining intellectual influence.

The opportunities are clear: the globalisation of academic life has dramatically boosted the status of English as the lingua franca of research and teaching. In Europe in particular, initiatives to foster student exchanges and common degree structures have forced the pace - even in traditional own-language bastions such as France and Germany.

But the unintended consequences of successive reforms of UK university management, financing and quality assessment threaten to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

This is particularly true in relation to student textbooks, which play a crucial role in systematising fragmented research findings and disparate debates to communicate them to a wider audience.

This is not just a matter of making cutting-edge issues accessible to new generations of students, important as that is. They are also a crucial link in the chain of academic progress by establishing baselines for researchers in an ever-more specialised world.

The analytical and research skills involved in writing such texts are much underrated, as exemplified by the notion that archiving teaching materials in institutional repositories could provide an easy substitute. In the past, British authors have proved particularly adept and enthusiastic at writing texts with international appeal, enabling UK academia to punch considerably above its weight around the world.

But 25 years of experience publishing such volumes has given me a depressingly privileged insight into their declining willingness and ability to do so in recent years.

A crucial factor has been the impact of the research assessment exercise, which has been exacerbated by departmental heads and research conveners second-guessing what is necessary to be absolutely sure of keeping or beating their previous scores.

I know of departments that tell their members to write only for the "top five" university presses and "top ten" impact-rated journals in their discipline, irrespective of whether these publications have any standing, or indeed interest, in their own sub-fields.

One university's search for quantifiable criteria for internal review procedures has led it to grade staff as of "international standing" (RAE-speak for a 5* grade) for four published articles a year while two somehow count only as "national". Authors of mine who have delayed delivering their books to write their quota of "RAE-able" journal articles early in the qualifying period have now come back to ask for further extensions having been told it would look bad if their core research output tailed off.

But it is not just the RAE. Research councils, too, put an increasingly high premium on proving that research has a measurable impact in the media and on policymakers in comparison with communicating findings to current and future generations of academics.

Talented senior professors are these days writing more (and larger) research applications than books. Talented younger researchers are being made heads of department earlier.

Everyone faces an ever-expanding range of other administrative tasks that eat into the time for sustained research and writing.

For all these reasons, it is small wonder that the proportion of authors on my textbook list based outside the UK has increased more than exponentially in recent years.

I have had the good fortune to find many impressive new authors elsewhere, but the predicament of the quality textbook is an indicator of a deep malaise of British academia.

I fear for its future if the funding and assessment regime is not fundamentally reoriented to achieving desired outputs rather than creating measurable processes. I can only console myself by thanking goodness I am not an academic.

Steven Kennedy is politics textbook publisher and a director of Palgrave Macmillan. He was named politics publisher of the year at the Political Studies Association awards this week.

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