Why I... find the research assessment exercise difficult to explain

December 21, 2001

DCS : Well, mother-in-law, I've got some very good news.

M-in-law : Really, what's that?

DCS : My department got a 5 in the RAE.

M-in-law : What's that?

Wife : Oh, don't be silly; he's been talking of nothing else for the past two years. You know what the RAE is. It's been in the papers.

M-in-law : No I don't. What is it?

Wife : Well, the government wants to decide which universities produce the best research so every five years they conduct this exercise.

M-in-law : What exercise?

Wife : They get every university teacher to submit four pieces of work and then they appoint a committee of particularly learned people to judge which research is good and which is rubbish.

M-in-law : You mean just in theology?

DCS : No, in every subject.

M-in-law : You mean this committee looks at biology, German, anthropology and physics as well as theology. They must be learned.

DCS : No. Not every subject. Each subject has its own committee.

M-in-law : So there are about 60 committees of extra-learned men...

Wife : People, mummy, people.

M-in-law : All reading hundreds of different bits of research. It must have taken forever.

DCS : It did. I just ran into one member of the theology committee. He didn't have a summer holiday, he was so busy reading all the stuff.

M-in-law : It sounds very silly to me. If he's so learned, shouldn't he be busy imparting his knowledge to the young? Not spending his time reading what less clever people have written. Anyway, how does the committee decide what's good and what's bad?

DCS : Well, each book or article is judged on whether it's of international significance.

M-in-law : You mean if it's been translated into lots of languages?

DCS : No, nothing to do with translation. Whether it's been published in journals of international significance such as The Journal of Theological Studies or Novum Testamentum.

M-in-law : Never heard of them. Do they have big circulations?

DCS : A lot of university libraries subscribe to them.

M-in-law : But not many people read journals in libraries.

DCS : I suppose not.

M-in-law : Let me get this straight. International has nothing to do with foreign people or places.

Wife : You're not getting the point at all. It's a great relief that Dan's department has done well.

M-in-law : Why?

DCS : The whole purpose of the exercise was so that the government found out which departments produced good research so that they could be rewarded with more money.

M-in-law : Why do they need more money?

DCS : So they can spend more time on their research and not get bogged down teaching.

M-in-law : But surely the young should have the best people teaching them. They shouldn't be fobbed off with some deadbeat who isn't very good at his job.

DCS : It doesn't work out quite like that.

M-in-law : Anyway all these committees of ultra-learned men.

Wife : People, mummy, people.

M-in-law : It must have cost a fortune. I thought Mr Blair said we had no money for anything and people had to lie on trolleys for days because the hospitals couldn't afford to treat them.

DCS : Anyway, the point is theology at Lampeter got a 5.

M-in-law : Well done. How much more money are you going to get?

DCS : Nobody knows yet. A lot more departments have got 5s this time so there may be no more money at all.

M-in-law : So what was the point of it then?

Dan Cohn-Sherbok
Professor of theology
University of Wales, Lampeter

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