Divide and demotivate

January 18, 2002

If RAE funding separates teaching from research, it will alienate many staff, warns Colin Clark.

: Higher Education Funding Council for England.
From : An improving social sciences department.
Date : For your attention on January 23.
Subject : Funding - what happens next?

As you are all aware, the main purpose of your meeting today is to sort out research funding for all these new 5 and 5* departments.

What a headache with so much excellence around! The point of this memo, however, is to remind you that some of the discussion should focus on those departments that are showing signs of improvement but are not yet in the high fives.

I am a member of a department that went from 3a in 1996 to 4 in the latest exercise. It was a good result, but obviously not good enough when compared with other universities and disciplines. Since the publication of the 2001 research assessment exercise, I have been very concerned about what life will be like for improving departments under the new funding arrangements.

Will we be given the time and money to compete with the 5s and 5*s in the 2006 RAE? Is it worth trying to "catch up", or is our future being decided today?

To be sure, it is not an easy matter to resolve. How to square this delicate funding circle is a major challenge for all of you at Hefce, though not an impossible one. However, I for one hope that you do not go down the misguided path of considering all departments with a rating of less than 5 to be suitable only for "mass market" teaching. A future where departments rated below 5 face being split into "teaching only" units - with new faculty or school research centres pulling in the key research academics from such departments - would not necessarily be a happier or more successful one.

But perhaps we are witnessing a much predicted result of the RAE system: higher education "teaching sheep" being detached from top-rated "research goats"? I hope not, but fear the worst.

Am I being unduly pessimistic? Well, I am a relatively young academic (31) with, I hope, my career in front of me. I entered higher education under no illusions. I knew pay was not great, that I would be teaching large classes and facing heavy administration loads. But I expected to be doing a little bit of everything as part of the job: remember the third teaching, third research, third administration model?

It seems that, in light of the 2001 RAE, many individuals will be asked to choose what their main interest is, if deemed "research active" enough, or told what to do and where to go, if considered "research inactive".

When I was an undergraduate in the early 1990s I can remember staff convincing us that "good researchers make good teachers". That era seems about to end. For many academics, departments and universities it is going to be a question of concentrating on what they are considered best at: the Premier League all-stars will conduct high-profile international research, while the Conference League amateurs will concern themselves with "bums-on-seats" teaching and administration.

In essence, there will be some sinking and swimming. As institutions play harder and faster to secure more 5 or 5* departments in the next RAE (if there is one), we could see more blood on the carpet.

The dilemma faced at your meeting should be considered alongside Margaret Hodge's announcement that student-finance reforms will not happen until at least 2003-04. While this funding uncertainty remains, many institutions will go through the post-RAE scrutiny and analysis in a climate of change and department and faculty restructuring. This air of uncertainty makes for difficult breathing. Hefce should be aware of this and try to make life easier for those at the sharp end. Give us all a fair chance to compete and do our best in teaching and research. After all, it is what we came into this job to do.

Colin Clark is a sociologist at Newcastle University. 
Should research be restricted to just a handful of universities? Email soapbox@thes.co.uk

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