Red tape, don't you just love it!

January 12, 2007

Tim Birkhead has seen the light - the RAE lifts indolent dons from ivory towers. And as for the 50 per cent participation target...

Believe it or not, I've had a change of heart. Following my annual review with senior management I have undergone a kind of Orwellian transformation and am now completely convinced that current education policies are the only way forward. The goal of getting 50 per cent of school-leavers into higher education is actually a wonderful opportunity, not only for them but also for those who will train them. Bigger classes mean more cost-effective teaching but also greater opportunities for outreach, interaction and innovation. At the same time, the need for individual departments to increase their share of the undergraduate market - through numerous visit days - provides academics with valuable training and experience in public relations.

Competition for research funding, I now realise, is the single best system for generating excellence and enhancing productivity. There's no better way to sharpen up the act of research-hungry academics than to dangle a tiny carrot in front of them. And if this doesn't do it, a bit of affirmative encouragement from the HOD (sometimes mistakenly referred to as bullying) is exactly what is needed. Heads of departments need the power to do whatever it takes to get staff to publish in top journals. The idea that those without the necessary high-impact papers for the research assessment exercise might be demoralised merely demonstrates their unsuitability and highlights the universities' need to more fully embrace the idea of enforced redeployment (or redundancy).

Another very positive outcome of the expansion in higher education is the wealth of employment opportunities it has created. The substantial body of administrators with their commitment to quality enhancement and audits is now a vital part - the very heart - of the university system. Where would we be without them? By saving us from thinking, our line managers free time for writing grant applications, additional teaching and completing the paperwork. And the RAE - the bête noire of so many - I now view as an entirely necessary process. It lifts indolent academics from their ivory towers and encourages them to confront the real world and the necessity of enhanced productivity. If you think about it, the RAE's focus (in science at least) on publications in the primary literature rather than books makes perfect sense since so few undergraduates read.

In a modern system of higher education, reading and writing are rapidly becoming superfluous. Instead, what our undergraduates require is entrepreneurial skill - the ability to borrow and reuse material available on the web and repackage it in a convincing and saleable manner. Progress in this area has been considerable - indeed, as the increasing proportion of upper-second and first-class degrees show, this has been a triumph.

Given this success, it is immensely reassuring to remind ourselves that the undergraduates of today are the academics of the future.

And what of the future? What can we expect in 2007? I anticipate three developments. First, we can look forward to some innovative and exciting developments in RAE metrics. Second, I think we will see the notion of students-as-customers reach dizzying new heights as parents begin to appreciate the value for money they are getting from tuition fees. Last, but by no means least, the concept of "full economic costing", which has so far been successfully applied only to research, I see having huge potential in other areas of academic life, not least in the teaching of undergraduates.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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