'What strikes me as objectionable about the RAE is the atmosphere of fear and trembling that surrounds it'

September 28, 2007

After writing in this column about the importance of taking the impact of childbirth and childcare into account when assessing research output for the forthcoming research assessment exercise, I was delighted by the positive responses.

Jon Tonge, chair of the UK's Political Studies Association, wrote to say that he has now asked a member of the association's executive to develop a PSA position "so that we can use what influence we have as a learned society to push more strongly for recognition of the demands upon parents with young children within the next RAE".

One of my colleagues here in Cambridge, Peter Mandler, a member of the national board for history's RAE, drew my attention to paragraph 39 of the generic criteria:

"Panels will consider the following individual circumstances to the extent that they are stated to have had a material impact on the individual's ability to produce the expected volume of research outputs in the assessment period: a. Family and domestic matters, including: i. Absence on maternity, paternity, parental or adoption leave and arrangements on return to work following these periods of leave; ii. Part-time working or other flexible working arrangements; iii. Time spent acting as a carer or other domestic commitments."

He also suggested that more column inches could be devoted to advertising such provisions, which ought to calm rather than inflame the anxiety levels of harassed parents whose research output has been negatively affected by reproduction.

Paragraph 39 was previously unknown to me. It is, apparently, open to interpretation. Is or isn't this formal allowance for departments to enter members who have worked part-time with fewer than the official quota of four publications? One argument is no: these are just equal opportunities guidelines, and special pleading is still needed before someone who worked part-time can be entered without the full quota of research output. Another argument is yes: what is the point of equal opportunity guidelines unless they make a substantive difference?

Interpretation of the phrase "material impact on the individual's ability to produce the expected volume of research" is also open. This might be straightforward: the material impact of working part-time as opposed to full time is that your time for research is halved. However, looser interpretations are possible: what really counts as a "material impact"? Extreme sleep deprivation, school or nursery holidays that make ongoing library work impractical, the disruption caused by children's illnesses? How detailed is it necessary to be?

What strikes me as particularly objectionable about the RAE, over and above the time wasted on interpreting the guidelines, filling in the forms, pleading and assessing special cases and so on, is the atmosphere of fear and trembling that surrounds it. Departments are rightly frightened that their funding might get cut. The RAE committees are frightened of including anyone in their entry who might lower their score, or, worst-case scenario, "score a zero". Individuals are frightened of being left out of the RAE because it might have some unspecified negative implications for their future employment prospects. I wouldn't be surprised to learn the RAE inspectors are terrified, too, along with the adminstrators and everyone else associated with what threatens to become an exercise in communal hysteria.

Peter Mandler, who has devoted a large amount of time to trying to get the RAE to come out well, thinks that all that is really needed is "a little cool judgment". He is surely right. If everyone made a personal effort to calm down and stop being so frightened of the generic criteria, perhaps even the equal opportunities provisions could be invoked by individual committees with confidence and equanimity.

Meanwhile, my own contribution to dispelling the atmosphere of fear and trembling is this: I soberly declare that if my department cannot submit me for the RAE because I worked part-time throughout the relevant period and have three, not four, publications to submit, I will not be afraid. I will not assume that my future career has been jinxed by the curse of the RAE. I will continue to do my work and teaching and will participate fully in the department regardless.

When I was writing my book on the French Revolution I often wondered what would have happened if, at some fraught juncture, someone on the Committee of Public Safety had looked Robespierre in the eyes and calmly said: "I refuse to be afraid." That person might have been guillotined - but not necessarily, and those were much more violent times than our own.

Ruth Scurr is affiliated lecturer in the politics department, Cambridge University, and fellow of and director of studies at Gonville and Caius College.

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