Research's damaging split

August 30, 1996

The research assessment exercise has "disempowered" 60 per cent of researchers and led to a damaging split between research and teaching, according to a study to be presented at an international conference in Paris next week.

In a paper dealing with the impact of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's research assessment exercise on research policy and management over the past five years, Anglia Polytechnic's Ian McNay will ask whether the loss of control felt by researchers over their own work could lead to a fall in commitment and quality.

Professor McNay will also argue, at an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development conference on management in higher education, that one of the areas most affected by the RAE is the teaching/research split: "With the growth in students numbers teaching is becoming casualised or proletarianised. The new elite have structural enclaves with their research students and assistants as acolytes."

A further development is the rise of team-based research and the decline of the lone "researcher", he says. This has resulted from the pressure to allocate funds selectively and the belief, supported by research findings, that group work produces better research or, at least, increases the chances of the work being familiar to a wider range of people.

Professor McNay says the assessment exercise has led to the development of a more defined research policy - although senior managers have a rosier view of its impact than their staff.

In his study of 400 researchers and 150 heads of departments and units in 15 institutions he found that nearly two-thirds of department heads believe research administration is more efficient. But less than a quarter of academic staff think this is so for their personal work, although nearly two-thirds agree that in their institution research is now better managed and supported.

Four-fifths of heads think the quality of their staff's work is better than five years ago, but only two-thirds of staff think their own research output is better. And only a third of researchers think the overall quality of research in higher education has been improved by the RAE.

Forty per cent of heads believe the RAE is breaking the link between teaching and research. Professor McMay says that a gradual institutional separation is opening between dedicated researchers and colleagues who specialise in teaching, and that there is a danger of original work being squeezed out of the undergraduate curriculum in basic science subjects as a result.

Professor McNay, who is finalising a major study of the RAE for HEFCE, has also found evidence of research funds "trickling down" within institutions. Just over half of heads surveyed believe "some funds generated by high rated units have been used to improve lower rated units". Only a quarter disagreed. Professor McNay says: "The case for dispersal of funds is rarely argued but is, in my view, strong. Concentration risks conservatism where established groups control the agenda and resist challenge. Dispersal of funds allows diversity".

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