This week's outline for the next research assessment exercise steers a careful course between the universities' demands for less bureaucracy and ministers' insistence on a system that continues to give the lion's share of funding to world-class departments. That the funding councils could win approval for a five-point scale from a government that ordered the addition of an eighth grade only a year ago suggests a certain skill in negotiation. And the softening of proposals to encourage some universities and colleges to opt out of individual peer review will reassure those who feared they would be frozen out of research.
One inevitable, but still regrettable, casualty of the purge on red tape was Sir Gareth Roberts' proposal for mid-term monitoring of quality between full assessments. Seven years is a long time to wait for recognition for an improving department, or one that feels it was undervalued by the assessors, and some judgements are bound to be dated by the time the next RAE comes around.
At least the new continuously graded profiles will avoid the sharp distinctions between departments on the margins of the grade boundaries.
The ability to identify pockets of excellence in otherwise unexceptional departments may encourage poaching, but it should bring overdue recognition to many academics. Although critics of the changes see them as channelling yet more funds to the usual suspects, the new grading scheme should provide valuable ammunition for those who have argued against further concentration. The exercise will surely demonstrate once and for all that top-class research takes place throughout the higher education system.