RAE countdown 2008

September 8, 2006

Cara Aitchison is professor of human geography at the University of the West of England, Bristol, specialising in gender and tourism. She is a member of sub-panel 46 of the 2008 research assessment exercise, Sports-Related Studies, and is one of the small minority of RAE judges from new universities An assessment panel called "sports-related studies" does not quite seem the natural arena for judgments to be made about the quality of the growing field of tourism studies. But for panel member Cara Aitchison, it is a relief that tourism has a home at all in the 2008 RAE.

"Last time around there was nowhere for tourism to go, so people submitted to the panel they felt was most appropriate. It wasn't great for the subject," she says.

"Tourism academics argue that there should be a separate panel for them, now that it's a very important area of higher education with more than 40 professors."

When Professor Aitchison was appointed to the panel, in 2005, her managers at UWE were delighted. But they warned her: "I hope you've cancelled your life for the next three years."

Sports-related studies is an emerging field and covers everything from natural to social science. "One of my roles on the sub-panel is to look at how we address pedagogic research, which is seen as much more important by the social sciences than the natural sciences.

"We've had other debates about how we value qualitative and quantitative research. Views vary enormously across the panel as to how we construct knowledge and the value of that knowledge."

Professor Aitchinson expects the six months that the panel will spend assessing the sector's output, beginning in early 2008, to be particularly intense.

"I'll need to make arrangements so I don't take on too much new work. But I've not been at UWE very long and have just set up a new tourism research centre, so it's not brilliant timing.

Professor Aitchison's sub-panel will work in teams of two, reading research and making preliminary judgments that the whole panel will consider. "We'll read virtually all the publications and treat all work on its individual merits," she says.

"I'm not daunted by the workload but maintaining my own institutional roles and jobs will be difficult because of the volume of submissions. Our workload will be significantly bigger because tourism academics are excited by having one panel to submit to."

Despite knowing her panel's assessment criteria inside out, the irony is that Professor Aitchison's own work will go to another panel. She is currently working on UWE's geography submission.

"(Being a panel member is) good for prestige but not if there's not another RAE. We get £200 for each day of meetings, so about £120 after tax. I'm charged out at £750 a day from the research centre, so institutions subsidise the RAE."

Her experience has also lifted her cynicism about the value and integrity of the RAE. "Having seen it from the inside I feel much more positive about it," she says.

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