Free us of the gold stars and iron bars of the RAE

October 13, 2006

The RAE is a dead weight that stops UK universities from flourishing. Abolish it, says Paul Taylor.

The most miserable creature on earth is the shoe fetishist who has to settle for the whole person, quipped the Austrian intellectual Karl Kraus. He was wrong, of course. The most miserable creature on earth is the academic within the 3 per cent minority who, according to the latest University and College Union poll, thinks the research assessment exercise "promotes a healthy competition". It does not.

The RAE produces supine acquiescence to a research climate that parodies children's reward schemes. For fridge doors, read undergraduate prospectuses where the gold stars handed out to diligent academics are displayed. With non-managerial values in UK universities now as rare as chemistry and physics departments, the 40 per cent of polled academics who just want RAE 2008 scrapped are in a situation akin to that of a devout Catholic at the time of the Borgias. Conducting disinterested research within the RAE is like trying to say the rosary in the midst of a papal orgy.

Beyond principled objections, however, the RAE does not work within its own utilitarian terms. The Times Higher 's list of the world's top 200 universities shows that, with no RAE in sight, the US holds 11 of the top 15 places - the UK just three. An obvious reason for this discrepancy is that US institutions enjoy much better funding. But an underacknowledged factor is the contrasting approach they adopt to administration. In the US, the professional judgment of academics at major research universities is not constantly second-guessed and undermined by the Kafkaesque Quality Assurance Agency and RAE regimes. US professors retain control of their own classes for the combined benefit of student, instructor and institution. What funding does exist in the UK is disproportionately fed into the bureaucratic maw. This will continue to be the case whatever specific shape the RAE assumes.

Despite their blithe rhetoric, UK university managers seem unwilling to learn from the US and its more successful model of integrated research and teaching. At the moment, British academe's only valid claim to world-class status is the quantity of strategy documents that include that phrase. The answer to our problem does not reside in managers' dog-eared copies of The Art of War or their latest laminated mission statement "Excellent Learning Outcomes for Knowledge-Enhanced Stakeholders in Excellence".

But academics must share the blame, too. We masochistically continue to self-flagellate by generating our own needless bureaucracy on the basis that, if we do not, we will be lashed all the harder by our overseers. We think this is a clever manoeuvre to outflank our adversaries, but in fact we just connive in our own oppression in ways they could not imagine. The 3 per cent minority doubtless contains those egregious apostatic apparatchiks, the ex-sociologists and postmodern cultural theorists identifiable by their designer suits and spectacles. Fully cognisant of the intellectually oppressive history and mentality of iron cages of rationality, their entrance into a committee room is nevertheless condition enough for acts of perversely impressive bad faith. They create new versions of the cage - with extra gilding.

The UCU survey reflects profound dissatisfaction with the RAE, where 96 per cent want a fundamental long-term review of research assessment and funding. But the damage is being done now. British universities are held back from walking the world-class talk by the pervasive traffic warden mentality of which the RAE is a prime example. Teaching and research excellence should be intimately intertwined. But, in practice, they are mutually exclusive. Internationally recognised scholars are micromanaged by teaching quality administrators frequently not recognised in their own corridors. How would we be worse off without them?

Overidentification is a useful concept in psychoanalysis in which one does not directly oppose rhetoric used in the service of power but instead turns the rhetoric against itself. The next time you are asked to participate in an "initiative" that should be prosecuted under the Trades Description Act, interrogate its contribution to your university's aspirations for world-class excellence.

The barrel-dwelling Diogenes would have felt at home in our underfunded UK sector. Faced with the question of what a new RAE should involve we should remember his response to Alexander the Great's similarly obtuse inquiry of "What can I do for you?". It was "Stand out of my light."

Paul Taylor is a senior lecturer in communications theory at Leeds University.

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