RAE panel hurt field by labelling it 'weak'

Critics blame judgment for the possible closure of politics departments. Melanie Newman reports

March 26, 2009

The panel responsible for judging the quality of politics research in the 2008 research assessment exercise has been criticised for "naivety" after it judged the discipline to be one of the weakest in the UK.

The UK's 59 politics departments that submitted to the RAE received an average research grade of 2.34 out of 4, ranking the discipline 62nd out of 67 units of assessments in Times Higher Education's Table of Excellence. This was despite the fact that a 2007 benchmarking review by the Economic and Social Research Council praised the discipline and concluded that "overall the story is one of strength".

A poor RAE result for the University of Liverpool's politics department, which was judged to have produced no work of "world-leading" (4*) quality, has been cited as a reason for its possible closure.

In January, the Political Studies Association (PSA) and the British International Studies Association wrote to Tony Payne, politics professor at the University of Sheffield and chairman of the RAE's politics panel, to complain that its judgments did not reflect the comparative strength of the discipline.

Professor Payne met with politics academics on 12 February and offered what one described as a "robust defence" of the judgments.

The academic, who asked to remain anonymous, told Times Higher Education: "After the meeting, the general view was that the panel had been thorough but naive - they didn't realise the damage they had done. They didn't expect grade-point averages to be used by vice-chancellors when making strategic decisions about their departments.

"Their decision has left politics looking like one of the weakest departments in the whole of the University of Liverpool, which is not a true reflection."

Another academic said: "A department could be in the top third in the UK for politics but in the lowest quartile of its own university."

In total, 11 politics departments, including the University of Birmingham's, were said to have produced no world-class research.

Vicky Randall, the PSA's chair, has written to Liverpool's vice-chancellor, Sir Howard Newby, to protest against the proposed department closure.

She said: "Closure ... will leave the city seriously undersupplied with degree-level politics courses."

Some academics have questioned whether the politics department at Sheffield, which came joint top of the Times Higher Education table with the University of Essex, benefited from having two members on the RAE subpanel, including its chairman.

In January, Sheffield announced that it had come first in the UK for research output in politics, although the full breakdown of RAE results, which will show data for research output across the sector, are not due until later this spring. Sheffield's head of politics, Andrew Geddes, blamed an "administrative error" for the disclosure.


Editor's note:

Apologies to Birmingham, it was not one of the 11 politics departments judged to have no "world-class" research outputs. It was judged to have 5 per cent of such work. The error was accidently introduced in the editing process.

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