Careers are on the line as universities exclude all but 'world-leading' submissions. Anthea Lipsett reports.
More academics than ever before will find themselves stigmatised as research inactive, it emerged this week, as universities began the often brutal process of confirming which staff will have their work submitted in the 2008 research assessment exercise.
Managers have begun indicating to staff whether or not they will make the cut - which could make or break careers - ahead of giving the RAE judging panels a preliminary indication of the research they are likely to submit this month and next.
The 2008 exercise, the last in its current form, is widely tipped to be the most selective process yet, with research-intensive universities vying to improve their standing by submitting only research of the highest quality rather than including all their researchers.
There are also concerns that universities are making tactical gambles by excluding some established researchers as they try to second-guess the type of research the panels might prefer.
In the 2001 RAE, the work of almost 50,000 researchers, out of a total of 116,000 full-time academic staff, was submitted. In 2008, the more research-intensive universities are likely to include only researchers whose publications are deemed to be "world leading".
Universities were largely unwilling to reveal how many staff they planned to exclude, and there are no final figures yet, but members of the Russell and 1994 groups of research-intensive institutions indicated that they would seek the best ratings rather than the financial rewards that could be won by entering more staff.
Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London and chair of the Russell Group, said: "I suspect many vice-chancellors would prefer to go for an outcome that allows them to claim highest quality across the board rather than higher immediate financial returns because it is a powerful way of enhancing reputation from which other benefits flow, such as recruitment of students and staff."
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University and chair of the 1994 Group, said: "Most research-intensives are talking about not entering people who are 'nationally excellent'. The real money will be concentrated in the highest grades this time around."
Dominic Houlihan, vice-principal for research at Aberdeen University, which submitted 75 per cent of staff in 2001, said "we will be going for the prestige profile rather than volume". Manchester University and Imperial College London will use the same tactic.
Designers of the 2008 RAE had tried to prevent game-playing and the use of selective strategies by introducing measures such as the profiling of departments.
Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "An ultra-selective approach to RAE submissions flies in the face of official advice. They said this time around there would be no need to exclude individuals for strategic reasons."
She said the UCU would seek to ensure that there was "no detrimental impact on staff who are excluded from the RAE".