So much, by so many, for so little

January 10, 1997

The conduct of the research assessment exercise has drawn as much fire from academics as have the results. THE MOST depressing feature of The THES's coverage of the 1996 universities research assessment exercise is the solemn and respectful air where incredulity, dismay, derision, contempt and disgust are more appropriate. How is it that so much effort by so many over so long at such cost has produced such lamentable results?

In my own subject of history, a 5 is commonplace where once so rare; the new universities of the 1960s are now fully assimilated but not (and apparently never to be) those of 1989; grade inflation has occurred with a vengeance and with a particular twist. Out of over 100 departments, only one institution is demoted a grade (Swansea, 4 to 3a); only one old university is graded as low as 3b (Lampeter); no new university or college is graded above 4; and no institution providing a panel member fails to keep or enhance its rating.

Actually, there is plenty of good work in low-rated institutions and many inactive or substandard researchers in the highly-rated. Yet the careers of those of merit in low-rated institutions are stunted.

Scrupulous care and attention no doubt went into producing these deplorable results. It is not the panel's fault that the disastrous move was made from quantitative to qualitative measures that enabled good work to be discounted and devalued.

Now the transfer market in staff is to be blocked (THES, December ). Perhaps this makes sense where work is collaborative and resource-based as in the sciences, and where individuals get credit that properly belonged to teams. But this does not apply for individual research in the humanities. Apart from being a restraint on the free passage of personnel so essential to academic interchange, it will freeze the pecking order indefinitely. Good researchers cannot move to where they are most wanted and best rewarded.

Assuming a six-year period for qualification for humanities research once again, much for assessment in RAE2000 has already been submitted and it is too late for many people to move. No matter how good their work, they are condemned to relative underfunding beyond the millennium. And they have only a year to catch RAE2004.

For the next exercise, let there at least be: * no overlap of personnel with the 1996 panels * no panels with less than equal representations of old and new (then ageing) institutions * not less than half the chairs from former Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council institutions and not less than a quarter from colleges of higher education * individuals graded before moving to departments * a procedure that ensures equal treatment, openness of methods and application, and accountability in the courts * the full range of grades employed by every subject group in specified proportions * every upgrading balanced by a demotion * and that merit is treated equally regardless of institution.

The results will not be just, accurate, or reliable, but they will not encounter so much immediate and complete disbelief.

Michael Hicks

King Alfred's College Winchester

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