Discrimination is a 3-letter word

March 3, 2000

Will ministers admit that the RAE is the reason so few women hold top academic jobs? Dream on, says Peter Knight

Universities are now under attack for underpaying female academics by an average of Pounds 4,000 a year. The true extent of the discrepancy between men's and women's salaries only became apparent as a result of the review of university pay conducted by the Bett committee. It found not only that women were paid less, but also that, although women make up half the university workforce, men are twice as likely to occupy senior posts. A disproportionately high percentage of women hold temporary contracts.

Why has this discriminatory behaviour come about? Appointments and promotions in universities are often undertaken by large committees, where there would seem to be little opportunity for overt prejudice. So what is going wrong?

There is only one mechanism that can explain the pervasive extent of discrimination in our universities, and that is the research assessment exercise. Every five years the "quality" of research is assessed in each department and, depending on the outcome, funding is allocated.

The future financial security, even the continued existence, of a department will depend on its success; a low rating means less funding and so fewer staff. And the standing of academics in their discipline is closely aligned with the rating of the department. The assumption is that good people are only found in good departments.

The RAE allocates Pounds 855 million each year to English universities - a process that encourages discrimination by assigning the overwhelming bulk of the money to predominately male subjects such as clinical medicine, engineering and the physical sciences. Subjects where there might be expected to be a better representation of women, such as nursing, receive short shrift. While clinical medicine has an annual allocation of Pounds 46 million, nursing receives just under Pounds 2 million. A factor of 20 seems a large differential.

Universities seek to appoint successful staff with success defined in terms of the RAE criteria. A background in a department with a high research rating can be a prerequisite for promotion. Given the nature of the RAE it is inevitable that more men than women will be able to satisfy these selection criteria.

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology recently recommended in its report Women in Science, Engineering and Technology that universities might "develop more sophisticated methods of appointment and promotion, so that criteria other than the number of papers published are assessed". Dream on! As long as the RAE counts published papers, so will promotion panels.

All this leads to a vicious circle where discrimination is compounded and reinforced.

The composition of the RAE

panels that will decide the next

allocation of funds provides a salutary warning. Despite women making up 50 per cent of the higher education workforce, fewer than one in four of the RAE panel members is female and only one in seven of the panel chairs is female. The panels chaired by women are responsible for the allocation of less than 10 per cent of the RAE funding.

What action can be expected from the government and the funding councils? The idea of the secretary of state requiring every university to have an equal opportunity policy is gloriously irrelevant.

The next RAE will be conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Four working groups have been established to guide the review, each chaired by the mandatory middle-aged white male academic. The mere thought that the RAE may be the engine of discrimination is not on the agenda.

The government and the funding councils are faced with a classic clash of policies; the government is genuinely committed to improving equality of opportunity but also wants to encourage so-called world-class research.

So which policy will win in this battle of principles? Sadly, I think the likely outcome is all too clear: the overriding conservatism of the research culture in universities will win the day and the RAE will survive in something close to its present form. Both the government and the university community will make their respective priorities clear - that the status quo is more important than equality.

Peter Knight is vice-chancellor of the University of Central England. He writes in a personal capacity.

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