Queen's has fallen into RAE trap

September 11, 1998

What a fine mess Queen's University Belfast has got itself into ("Outrage at restructure for Queen's", THES, September 4). It all began so well. A new vice-chancellor appointed on a tide of goodwill and optimism. A division speech in Whitla Hall greeted with euphoria. Widespread media coverage. Acres of flesh pressed during a whistlestop tour of Queen's departments.

Several months on, what do we have? A potential PR disaster. An institution in shock. Uncertainty and falling morale. One hundred and seven academics invited to consider severance. Many of those not targeted fearing it might be their turn next. Advocates of the plan forced to more extreme positions of support than they would like as the cracks begin to show. Former supporters recanting as the wider impact becomes apparent. The unseemly spectacle of some senior managers scrubbing the university's dirty linen in public.

But, as is often the case with stubborn newsprint stains, the harder you scrub, the bigger the stain gets. So what went wrong? Why has the actuality fallen so short of the vision? Basically, Queen's fell into the research assessment trap - hook, line and sinker. In particular, management became fixated on the research assessment exercise in 2001, to the virtual exclusion of all other considerations. Queen's is not alone, although its knee-jerk reflex has been more excessive than most. And all this at a time when the value and validity of the RAE itself is the subject of intense debate. Short-term expediency will usually produce an illusory change. It does not take much managerial nous to realise that any organisation's performance on any measure (in Queen's case, research) can be inflated through sacking 107 people who are deemed, however speciously, to be below average.

Never mind the baby, such an approach amounts to throwing the baby and the bath out with the bath water, and risks eroding the longer-term strength of the university. Queen's appears to have abrogated managing its research activity for a crassly executed quick-fix for RAE 2001. Like a somewhat out-of-shape socialite panicking at the realisation that the next big party is looming, Queen's has gone on a crash diet and slapped on a bit of makeup to look good on the day. Why the short-termism? Why the almost unseemly haste? Is it because some of the key architects of the plan may not be around for RAE 2006 and therefore must make their mark in 2001? We may never know. Perhaps more significantly, many will not be around when some other poor unfortunate has to come along and pick up the pieces. Almost mantra-like, the university continues to trot out the sole defence of its actions, namely that the plan was approved by Queen's academic council and senate. While this may be true, the fact is that the devil was always going to be in the detail. It is inconceivable that many members of these bodies could have supported the plan had they foreseen the serious flaws in its implementation and the subsequent human cost. Lately there have been emerging signs of disquiet among those who voted for the plan now the full implications are becoming apparent. In the distance, the sound of chickens coming home to roost grows ever louder.

So what is the solution? Undoubtedly Queen's desire to improve the quality of its research is genuine and welcome. But management should recognise that it cannot be achieved through the present flawed process, at least not if the improvement is to be real, sustainable and in the broader interests of the university. It should have the courage to reconsider its strategy. Abandon the crash diet. Shred the list of targeted staff. End the fixation with RAE 2001 and instead manage the research process with longer term, sustainable objectives in harmony with the university's other vital functions of teaching, broader scholarship, administration and community service. Undoubtedly staff who do not share the university's vision would come forward and offer to leave. At least they would do so without the injustice and unbearable stigma many targeted staff feel.

Gerry Mulhern Senior lecturer School of psychology Queen's University Belfast

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