Send the brats to sergeant-major

November 24, 2006

The RAE brings out the spoilt child in academics who know their market value, bemoans Tim Birkhead.

My first head of department was a tyrant. He had been a sergeant-major in the Second World War, kicking open doors and spraying machinegun bullets around before asking if there was anyone in. He ran the department in much the same way and would have ridden roughshod over today's political correctness. Remarkably, he engendered great loyalty - his dictatorial charm meant that you knew where you stood. His decisions were autocratic and swift. Sometimes they were wrong; often they were right, but little time was wasted on democracy or diplomacy. Within the confines of our department he was god, and you knew that to survive you did what he said. In case there was any doubt, your contract spelt it out: one's job was to conduct research, to teach and to do whatever else the head of department requested. My colleagues and I did so, unquestioningly.

That was 30 years ago. How things have changed, but I'm not sure for the better. With increased demands on everyone's time, political correctness can sometimes seem like wasted effort, and heads of department can spend a lot of time working their way through the pseudo-democratic process to give staff the illusion of self-control. Perhaps the most significant change is the workload and the greater sense of competitiveness thanks to increased undergraduate numbers and the research assessment exercise.

The RAE has also had a dramatic effect on the social fabric of academia. Let's consider one strand of this - research fellowships. At one level they are a wonderful opportunity, but at another they are a potentially disruptive force. The system provides some young researchers with long-term fellowships, at the end of which they are expected to be absorbed into the department as a full team member. At best this is a productive but risky strategy because some who enter academia via the prestigious fellowship route seem to see the world differently. These fellows are not generally chosen for their abilities as teachers or for their collegiality, but purely on their research record. Imagine giving a toddler everything they asked for whenever they asked for it and then at the age of ten suddenly expecting them to behave like a normal child and accept some corporate responsibility. It would be naive to imagine that such a system would be without problems.

Sadly, some academics sometimes behave worse than toddlers because, thanks to the RAE, they have a sense of what they are worth on the open market. They can attempt to hold their department to ransom, behaving like petulant brats and threatening to take their toys elsewhere unless they get their own way. A colleague at another university told me how her department head had asked a recently absorbed fellow if they would take on the responsibility of arranging sixth-form visit days. This individual simply refused. Scared that "Dr No" might take their RAE points elsewhere, the head of department felt powerless to respond.

Few would dispute that academics are overworked and underpaid, but the fact that anyone would dare to say "no" illustrates how much things have changed. The fact that they can take their RAE points elsewhere illustrates a fundamental flaw in the system. When footballers transfer between clubs, they take with them only their skills; the goals they scored remain with the club they left. A similar rule would avoid a great deal of unnecessary nonsense in academia.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behaviour and evolution, Sheffield University.

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