Don's Diary

December 14, 2001

The deadline for submissions to the 2001 research assessment exercise is only a few days off, and the jammed helplines testify to a frenzy of activity in institutions across the country. A dispute rages over the rules for counting non-research active staff, and two members of my team have just left for new jobs. Three years of planning and preparation threaten to unravel.

Thankfully the submissions all arrive on time, the software works and we are soon running a week ahead of our processing schedule. Breakneck recruitment means the team is quickly getting back to full strength.

I manage a flying visit to Switzerland to give a paper to a seminar on quality assessment in the social sciences.

Two million photocopies later (literally!) and the submissions have been sent to the assessment panels. There are more than 300 panel and sub-panel meetings between now and October. I need to get to a meeting of most panels at least once and to the larger ones a number of times. There are bound to be unforeseen issues to sort out and gaps to cover. I give up my desk and get a lighter laptop.

I am living out of a suitcase. The assessment work rolls on as I watch the ebb and flow of tourist traffic through assorted Bloomsbury hotel windows. Maybe one day I will write a book on the unsuitability of virtually all hotel rooms as effective workplaces.

Back in Bristol, the system for sourcing research outputs for panel members is in full swing. Eventually, we will have supplied more than 45,000 items and allowed panels to read more submitted research than ever. At the moment, it seems like an endless flow of mail trolleys and ever-lengthening processing times.

This is peak reading season, as panels prepare for their main assessment meetings next month. My continuous round of panel visits goes on, but at least the schedule allows for the occasional sanity-saving day "Munro-bagging" in Scotland between meetings. The best way to wade through RAE submissions is undoubtedly with a pint of 80/-(very strong Scottish bitter) and a rucksack full of wet climbing gear at Edinburgh airport.

As each panel completes its provisional grades, the consultation with the non-UK based advisers swings into action. For the first time, experts worldwide will comment on the panels' understanding of international excellence. As reports start coming back, the news is promising. Soon almost 300 of them have confirmed that the panels got it right.

The first week is solid panel meetings as panel chairs compare and discuss their provisional grade profiles. In the wake of last month's terrorist attacks, five days of meetings in the Higher Education Funding Council for England boardroom on the 28th floor of the Centrepoint tower feel subdued and nervy. At the same time, there is a determination to do a professional job, reflecting the commitment of panels throughout the year. This mood continues until the end of the month, as panels complete their assessments, with modest celebration, quiet satisfaction and considerable relief.

Surprisingly, several members say they will miss the RAE.

Some 2,500 panel workbooks to check, grades to collate and confirm, and the outcomes document to prepare. The news seeps out that the results are better than in 1996 and attention switches to the possible financial consequences.

It's all over. The results are out, are excellent and attest to vibrant and dynamic research across the sector. Of course, the funding is still not decided and the arguments over standards and "games playing" (submission tactics) will rumble on for months. It has been the strangest of years: deeply frustrating and exhausting at times, yet immensely satisfying and rewarding. What a great time for the office Christmas party.

John Rogers, research assessment exercise manager, Joint UK Higher Education Funding bodies.

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