Academics must oppose the research quality assessment, say Paddy Scannell and Philip Schlesinger
Sir Gareth Roberts' review of research assessment constitutes the most destructive set of proposals for the future of the UK's research ever. Universities have just been "consulted", but the substance of what is intended will not be much changed by criticism. In England, the Higher Education Funding Council is likely to finalise its proposals by the end of the year. Maybe in Scotland the damage can be limited. For the majority of British researchers and their universities, endorsement of Roberts' tunnel vision will be little short of disastrous.
As universities' leadership seems set to implement Roberts' recommendations, academics have no collective option but to oppose the proposals. The new universities face a potential massacre. Forty or so of the least research-intensive institutions could be taken out of the game as it has been played up to now because their research income is less than 2 per cent of their combined teaching and research grant. Others may hang on by the skin of their teeth, with a handful of entries.
For the vast majority of traditional universities, moreover, the impact of Roberts' review will be scarcely less disastrous. They already face radical restructuring and a damaging concentration of their research, with departments being ordered back to teaching only. Perfectly good research centres are being, or will be, closed. The new climate of fear has engendered a widespread crisis of morale and motivation in British academia.
Roberts declares that his proposals do not "represent a wholesale rejection of the RAE and the principles upon which it was built". Not true. The RAE was based on a principle of inclusion. The research quality assessment proposed by Roberts preaches radical exclusion.
At its best, the RAE fostered the UK-wide growth of collegial research groups. The RQA intends to divide up the funding pot between the top dozen or so "research-led" universities. It will shrink the UK's research base and sets up a game in which most universities are destined to be losers.
Only existing 5 and 5* rated departments will be advised to take part in RQA 2007. Outside the 5s, only heavily certified "rising 4s" will be eligible, having first proved they are on track to become internationally excellent.
The old ranking system is to be scrapped and departments will be given a research profile based on their proportion of three, two and one-star staff. The 3* staff are "top international", 2* staff are "bottom international" and 1* staff are "top national". Everything below that, almost all research of national standing, will be excluded. Each class of researcher will be differently rewarded. The 3* staff will be worth much more than 1* staff. These super rewards for individuals will be disastrous for collegial relations.
In response, academics have to espouse alternative principles. First, inclusiveness must be retained. Any institution with good quality research should be able to enter the RQA. It makes no sense to exclude 4-rated departments in which the majority of research staff produce work of national excellence and some may be at an international level. Roberts has forgotten that he was once a novice. Progress in research is usually developmental - staff may build up to an international level of achievement. They may not. But it is absurd to discard the recognition and reward of good research that contributes to many disciplines and is vital for teaching.
Second, it is crucial to assess departments and not individual researchers.
Roberts has uncoupled the assessment of the surrounding research cultures from the assessment of the outputs of individual staff. They are interdependent and need to be reconnected. Financial rewards should continue to go to the department as a whole to recognise a collective effort from which all benefit.
The RAE depended on peer-group review supported by the sector as a whole.
That presupposed inclusiveness. The panel members of the 69 units of assessment in 2001 were drawn from across the universities. Many came from departments or institutions that will be excluded from RQA 2007.
Institutions will have no option but to compete in Roberts' destructive game. However, professional associations may wish to consider whether they are willing to nominate panel members. And those nominated may also wish to consider whether they want to take part in an assessment process that denies the inclusive principle of peer-group review of all good research.
Roberts treats most of us with contempt. It is time to recognise this, return the compliment and refuse to play.