This REF is a deadly serious undertaking

Frustration with audit culture has driven a scholar to murder - in fiction. Matthew Reisz investigates

October 20, 2011



Credit: Kobal
A shot in the dark: the REF leads to homicide in a fictional college. Many academics would like to kill off the REF itself


The murderer in a crime novel needs a dark, consuming motive: sadism, sexual jealousy or the research excellence framework.

The last features in Damaged Goods: A Higher Education Mystery, published this month by Matador. Set in the closed, incestuous world of an imaginary Oxbridge college, the novel critiques the audit culture that enrages academics across the sector.

Its author, California-born Ann Waswo, is emeritus Fellow at the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies, based at St Antony's College, Oxford, where she still has an office. At the beginning of the century, she recalled, she was "doing a lot of administrative work, attending briefing sessions, filling in a variety of questionnaires, while the history department was reeling from initiatives and cuts. I didn't like the audit culture that was descending and the efforts to influence the research academics do.

"I was getting more and more vexed and irritated and wanted the world to know what was happening to academics. There was too much grumbling among ourselves, and Oxford's vote of 'no confidence' in David Willetts (the universities and science minister) was bumped off the news agenda by Wayne Rooney's hair transplant, so I got the idea to write a novel in which these issues featured in small doses."

Dr Waswo took as her heroine a Japanese art fraud investigator called Akiko Sugiyama, who draws on her knowledge of Japan and might prove useful for a Tokyo-based sequel. Her ignorance of the research excellence framework gives the other characters an opportunity to explain their gripes.

Once Ms Sugiyama has arrived at Thaddeus Hall in Exton University (very transparently based on an Oxbridge college), she finds the academics at daggers drawn over references, citations, business-friendly research agendas and a new appraisal scheme, while her friend the warden, Sir Christopher Ryan, is devoting every effort to pump an obnoxious benefactor for more money.

Although the changes sweeping British higher education are unlikely to lead to murder in real life, Dr Waswo does believe that they have "had a negative impact on collegiality. Now people are counting their output strategies and are more reluctant than they should be to lend a helping hand."

So what have colleagues made of her horribly fractious, fictionalised college? "I announced at a dinner a year before I retired in 2007 that I was going to set a novel in a college much like St Antony's," Dr Waswo replied cheerfully, "and so would ruin its reputation in the world!

"I did check with the warden, Margaret MacMillan, that she didn't have the heir to a Canadian forestry fortune lined up as a possible benefactor (as in the book), so that I wouldn't ruin any ongoing negotiations."

Given that a book launch was recently held at St Antony's, there can't be too many hard feelings.

Fiction, unlike the real world, can provide nice happy endings. By the close of Damaged Goods, the crimes have been solved, romance is blossoming and Sir Christopher can congratulate himself that the college's Fellows "may even have made a start in freeing themselves from mindless metrics!"

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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