Paid peanuts, made into monkeys

January 26, 1996

It may be a cliche, but for once it happens to be true: morale in British universities is at an all-time low. The profession I joined 30 years ago is not one I would choose as a career now, nor is it one I would encourage my students to enter.

When I started, research standing was based on word-of-mouth reputation. People would hear of your work in progress and invite you to give a lecture or a seminar. There was no pressure to rush into print before the work was ready. Publishers were individuals, not conglomerates. Senior people dealt personally with their academic authors. Today you can consider yourself lucky if the same editor, often scarcely older than your students, stays long enough to see your proposal through to publication; chances are the firm will be taken over and your editor will disappear in the resulting "downsizing". This makes publishers disagreeable people to deal with. Once it was a pleasure.

There are, however, worse things, the chief of which is gross exploitation of authors. Publishers know that academics have to publish, to further their own careers, and to stave off a cut in their department's research funding. The research assessment exercise has given publishers of academic books and specialist journals the whip hand over the people who produce the copy. Authors have to accept whatever terms they can get, a couple of hundred of pounds for a book, and for an article nothing at all.

If writers dare protest, they are told that the publisher's margin is so tight that they are lucky not to have to come up with a subsidy themselves. While it is true that some books are too specialised to justify much in the way of an advance, computer typesetting and laser printing have reduced production costs considerably. There is clearly money to be made in academic publishing (especially journals). How could there not be, when the copy comes free?

More insidious is the argument that since dons are salaried, they do not need to be paid as writers. Publishers are well aware that because their contract requires university teachers to engage in research they are allowed a measure of free time to do so. To pay them on top seems superfluous. This overlooks two points. The first is that no one expects consultants to treat private patients for nothing just because the NHS pays them too. The second is that salary and such grants as are available never cover the full costs of preparing a book, so any royalty income is used to subsidise research rather than fund a more lavish lifestyle.

And now there is the double whammy: RAE plus teaching quality assessment. Any mention of the twin hoops we are being made to leap through is greeted with cynicism, not because academics do not care about doing a good job, but because they care too much. Aware that total quality assessment assessors scrutinise course descriptions to see whether "outcomes" measure up to claims made, they spend weeks drafting documents that advance nothing that cannot be substantiated, hoping to get through without penalty. There is no point doing more than that. A bad rating means an unwelcome return visit; a good rating gains you nothing, certainly not increased funding. That weary National Service adage, "keep yer 'ead down and yer toecaps bulled" is spreading its numbing tentacles through a profession that was once as different from the military as chalk from cheese.

RAE gives rise to cynicism of an even more corrosive kind, because it has the aforementioned threat of a reduction in funding. Since four items have to be selected from the preceding six years' output, it has been obvious from the outset that nothing was to be gained from taking time to write a book that might actually amount to something. Instead one had to make sure that four reasonably good items were in print by the deadline, even if this involved releasing prematurely the book's best chapters for journal publication. No wonder De Montfort is out headhunting. Who can blame them?

To put an end to all this nonsense, there is a simple solution: all initial contracts (without prejudice to the normal probationary arrangements) to be "teaching only", with study leave available on application to those with a vocation for research. If after five years a body of work of sufficient merit has been published, a "research plus teaching" contract should be offered, subject to quinquennial review and with the option of reverting at any time to a standard contract. This would enable true researchers to emerge without provoking feelings of guilt in those whose skill lies in making accessible the advances and discoveries of others. It would pull down the curtain on the demoralising farce of TQA/RAE. It would end the iniquity of a funding system that values second-rate research and ignores first-rate teaching. And it would not be so easy for publishers to pay peanuts and make monkeys of us all.

John Fletcher is professor of European literature, University of East Anglia.

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