Results are out, spin is in

Managers have gone to work on the RAE figures, and now Gloria Monday does not know if her university has gone up, down or nowhere at all. But she knows she’s unlikely to be any better off

December 29, 2008

I have finally come up for air after three days of binge eating with my ghastly family – the nephews and nieces, the style-Nazi sister, my obnoxious mother and her latest acquisition, who goes by the name of Ronald and doesn’t stop talking, mostly about himself. The only comfort to be had is that the quality of booze is higher than usual and my lot don’t actually seem to be worse than anyone else’s relatives, at least to judge by what I read in the papers and catch on the TV soaps. Nobody threatened anyone with death in our house, although my niece had a hissy fit over the Brussels sprouts and my sister’s husband had to be pushed off the front doorstep when he tried to gatecrash the Christmas dinner. He’s been off the guest list since he ran off with one of his students last year, but he keeps trying to weasel his way back in – if I weren’t so vigilant he might even have managed it by now. Where my ex spent Christmas I can’t begin to guess, although the bugger had the temerity to send me a text on Christmas Eve wishing me all the joys of the festive season. Never trust a failed chemist who finds religion in middle age, say I.

Surfacing, and slightly hung over, I found myself going over the RAE results again, trying to work out what exactly they mean. The day after the results came out, our v-c appeared grinning like a death’s head on the university website under a multicoloured banner of some sort alongside a headline that read “RAE SUCCESS – BEST-EVER RESULTS. WE MAKE THE TOP 50 IN 2008”. It was only when you got down to the small print that the phrase “best-ever results” began to sound a bit hollow. True, we appear to have gone up about 14 places or thereabouts, but 11 other universities have exactly the same score as us. I asked about that at our grand “feedback meeting”, which was held just before the university closed for Christmas. What I got as a response was a great volume of figures as some overpaid admin bloke endeavoured to work out the details. Just having a rough score isn’t enough, you have to consider the detail, said this pompous little ass. We could calculate the result around those universities with the highest percentage of work ranked at level 4, he continued. Some universities will do this, but not us because if we calculate in this way we actually drop a few points, we don’t go up at all. Or we could calculate the highest percentage of work ranked at both 4 and 3, in which case we would stay exactly where we were in 2001. But, if we were to reckon on the percentage of staff submitted, then we might even be ranked in the top 50, which appears to be to the v-c what the golden fleece was to Jason, a life-transforming ideal that, when you obtain it, is pretty useless. What on earth good is a golden fleece – you couldn’t even use it as a bedside rug; and what exactly is the payoff for coming 49th in any league table? I wonder.

I asked for an explanation of the percentage of staff submitted, but the admin bloke became even shiftier than usual and muttered about strategic exclusions and needing to avoid being unclassified altogether. I’d obviously started something though, because quite a few people began demanding more information about percentages, and it soon became clear that all kinds of horse-trading had been going on.

So let me get this straight, I said to the admin bloke, who was becoming less chipper by the minute. What you’re telling us is that you really don’t know what these results mean because there are so many different ways of interpreting them, that every man, woman and dog employed in a UK university is going to be trying to fiddle them so as to get the best possible spin. Wee Tommie, our wall-eyed Registrar, intervened at this point to assure me that nobody would be spinning anything, but that obviously we wanted to put the best possible interpretation on the facts before us.

Right, I said, so tell me exactly where we are in these league tables and how that will translate into funding. Wee Tommie went as white as his hair, and told me that it would be premature to speculate. I reckon Wee Tommie knows a thing or two about premature speculation, but I was too polite to insist.

So from where I’m sitting now, about to pour myself another glass of whatever’s going round at 3.30pm on Boxing Day, everything is still up for grabs and the whole RAE scoring business is about as impenetrable as the old system of calculating students’ results where you could have papers rated B-(+/C++) with some hints of A(- -). We may have gone up, or we may have gone down, or we may be right where we were before, and the likelihood of it all is that we won’t be a penny better off after all the months of preparation and all the salaries paid to the jumped-up little admin boys.

Still, 2008 is nearly over. Cheers everyone, Happy New Year. Best foot forward for the REF preparations!

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