The loneliness of the lone RAE runners

Academics who are sole entrants in their category admit to feeling the pressure. Zoe Corbyn reports

June 12, 2008

Peter Harvey takes a pragmatic view about the unusual - and possibly uncomfortable - position he will find himself in on the 18 December, the date the results of the research assessment exercise will be published. "If the result is good, I'll be pleased. If not, well that is the way it goes," said the professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Sunderland.

Professor Harvey is different from most researchers in the 2008 RAE in that he is alone in his unit of assessment (UoA). The graded profile of research activity that Sunderland receives for UoA 61 - theology, divinity and religious studies - will effectively be a direct indictment of Professor Harvey's individual research prowess.

This is his first time in a UoA on his own. In the 2001 RAE, 3.2 staff were submitted, but his colleagues have since left or retired. "We got a 3b in 2001, but a flag for my work in Buddhist studies (indicating it was of higher quality than the rest)," he said, crossing his fingers.

How many other single-person UoA entries there are in the 2008 RAE remains to be seen. The funding councils refuse to say prior to the RAE results being made public. But anecdotal evidence suggests that the 2008 "club for one" will be smaller than it was in the 2001 exercise, when 35 academics graced its ranks: 32 UoAs had one and three UoAs had less than one full-time research-active staff member.

Two researchers who stood alone in 2001 and 1996, but not this year, are Ralph Cleminson, professor of Slavonic studies at the University of Portsmouth, and Damien Keown, professor of Buddhist ethics at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Professor Cleminson, who was alone in the UoA for Russian, Slavonic and East European studies, which achieved a five-star rating in the 2001 RAE, was included with European studies in this year's exercise.

"I doubt you will find very many of us (alone) this time around," said Professor Cleminson, adding that the 2008 RAE seemed to place more emphasis on "critical mass".

Professor Keown has a similar story. A lone entrant in the UoA for theology, divinity and religious studies, which gained a four-star rating in the 2001 RAE, he was submitted in the larger history UoA this year after a merger of his university's religion and history departments.

Both said they had found being alone in a UoA difficult. "You feel rather exposed. You feel you are being assessed a lot more personally than is the case when you are the member of a larger group," said Professor Cleminson.

"It does feel like you are in a club for one," said Professor Keown, who added that he was regarded in his institution as a "quirky anomaly ... that chap in Buddhism studies who goes in on his own.

"You can't blame anyone else or say their results pulled you down. You have nowhere to hide if it goes badly, and that is the key problem. The aim of the exercise is not to assess individuals, but what else can you do when you have got these situations?"

A spokesman for the Higher Education Funding Council for England said it was a matter for each university to decide which members of staff to submit to which UoAs. Universities had been made "well aware" that quality profiles including the number of staff submitted to the UoA would be published in December, he added.

"Subprofiles" (see table) will not be published where the head count of submitted staff was three or fewer in order to protect individual researchers, he added.


17 Dec 2008: Institutions receive individual results in confidence

18 Dec 2008: Results made public on RAE website - graded quality profile for each unit of assessment (UoA) at each institution along with the number of full-time equivalent staff submitted to UoA

5 Jan 2009: Institutions receive subprofiles which break results of each UoA down by "research outputs", "research environment" and "esteem indicators" - and written panel feedback in confidence

Jan 2009: Subject overview reports for each UoA made public

Spring 2009:

- Subprofiles for each UoA made public, excluding those with three or fewer staff

- Actual RAE submissions made public with confidential material removed

Adapted from a letter to vice-chancellors issued on 29 April 2008. See:

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