So much, by so many, for so little

January 10, 1997

THE research assessment exercise is carried out by panels largely made up of winners from the previous occasion who assess publications they themselves have largely refereed during the previous four years against standards they set independently of the society which funds them. Quality is defined as those standards attained by the winners; in the main by those winners themselves.

As a Pounds 2-million exercise it is presumably justified as a basis for distributing funds and as a stimulus for competition. As to the content, value, quality and relevance of the research one harbours doubts.

I believe that universities represent the only mechanism we have to improve our understanding of ourselves and our environment. They are the means by which we harness and pass on that understanding to the current and next generation of citizens. They should be the independent mechanism by which the problems in our society are identified, debated and addressed. They should be the font of curiosity driven endeavour and the source of new ideas on which the creation of wealth and our quality of life depend.

Yet I am disappointed by their performance against these criteria. We divide universities' roles simplistically into teaching and research and impose from on high singular (and imperfect) systems for defining and assessing each.

Administration and teaching are major distractions. Despite its weaknesses RAE1996 shows that institutions that are 100 per cent dedicated to a particular field are more successful. For the 14 institutions submitting all their staff to a single unit of assessment the average rating is close to 5 star. Why do we not address research more directly rather than leaving it as a hobby for academics to do in the spare time few of them have?

The justification for research as an aid to teaching is more to do with staff quality and stimulus than knowledge and a relevant curriculum. Commonsense dictates that most new knowledge arises outside a particular institution and thus scholarship is more relevant to teaching than research.

In science and technology much new knowledge is developed abroad and in industry - not in the local university. In technology many of the new ideas are concerned with the deployment of knowhow and the creation of new ideas synergistically through multi-disciplinary teamwork. Japan has shown us that teamwork and methods are as important as content when it comes to wealth generation. Our universities and degree structures are particularly unsuited to research of this kind. A review of teaching and research assessment methods is thus sorely needed.

David Rhodes

34 Redwood Avenue, Wollaton Nottingham

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