Goodbye to the RAE ... and hello to the REF - Alex Danchev

November 30, 2007

Red tape, game-playing, flummery and jargon: Alex Danchev comes not to praise the RAE, but to bury it. The research assessment exercise is over. The submissions are in. The photocopiers are cooling. The filing cabinets are bulging. RAE co- ordinators throughout the land are asleep on their feet, bone-weary, battle-scarred, bereft. Heads of this, deans of that, pro vice-chancellors of the other are picking up the pieces of their shattered lives. Corridors are haunted by the reproachful gaze of the deselected. Finally, at last, there is nothing to be done.

From a different perspective, of course, the RAE has hardly begun. Now is the season of peer review: the sacred heart of the matter. Metrics murmur menacingly, but for the time being the assessment is human, all too human. Every dog has its day. So does the put-upon panellist. Grading, collating, reconciling and disseminating will take a year. Funding is another matter.

And then, it is said, a change is going to come. If this is the end of the RAE as we know it, what are we to make of this strange septennial ritual?

The higher lunacies are well known. First among them is the temptation of game-playing. The bureaucratic politics of the RAE must gladden the heart of any adherent to that paradigm. The exercise purports to be, among other things, an audit of the country's research capacity; discipline by discipline, panel by panel. Leave aside the disciplinary fixation in an interdisciplinary or post-disciplinary age. Will any panel have the nerve to assess so stringently as to downgrade its discipline in relation to others, and thereby jeopardise both status and funding? If across the country flat-earth studies scores something like a lowly 1* ("Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour") and phrenology a mighty 4* ("Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour"), what happens? The cry goes up - BRITAIN BEHIND THE CURVE ON FLAT-EARTH STUDIES - students desert in droves, non-viable departments close, flat-earthers retire or retrain as phrenologists, a branch of knowledge withers on the vine. Meanwhile, phrenology waxes fat.

As for those determining submissions, there is game-playing (or soul- searching) about selectivity. Entering a single Nobel laureate presumably guarantees the highest "quality level" and greatest kudos - unless his name is James Watson - but it secures funding for only one person. Entering everyone in the department may lower the level but increase the income. Where lies the optimal balance of cash and kind - reputation, and what follows from it - not to speak of the individual and collective fallout? These are not questions that can be answered with any certainty, for the distribution of funding in this RAE is not yet known. The financial consequences of a given set of grades for a given number of researchers are impossible to predict. In this sense, the players enter the game blind. Who in their right mind would favour such a system?

The gateway to a respectable quality level is international recognition, and its doppelganger, international excellence. (Level 1 does not cut much ice, it transpires, star or no star. To be "recognised nationally", which is to say by no one north of Aberdeen or west of Aberystwyth, would be regarded as little short of a slight by any research-intensive university. The level below that, "Unclassified", speaks for itself.) Not surprisingly, when it comes to definition, the quality descriptors tie themselves in knots: 2* is "Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour"; 3* is defined as "Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which nonetheless falls short of the highest standards of excellence" - a priceless rider. International recognition is a proverbial, often chimerical attribute. The RAE has found it a difficult one to grasp, not least because it is itself an essentially national enterprise. The main panels, superintending a congeries of disciplines, have an admixture of international representatives, many of them from the US, so often the be-all and end-all of "international" attention in this context. The disciplinary sub-panels have none. International assessments are still being made by national assessors, first and foremost. International recognition is not the self-evident proposition it is sometimes made to seem. International excellence is properly comparative. Is the RAE well designed to make such judgments?

Cutting to the quick, what of the actual practice of peer assessment? Will the sub-panels read every item, doorstops and all? How? The chairman of the Man Booker Prize judges recently remarked that he had read a novel "quickly". The novelist in question called him an idiot. A certain novel was not to be read quickly; for the novelist, that was the whole point. Is there a moral here?

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at Nottingham University.

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