Why I... won't be filling in my research transparency review form

November 3, 2000

Hugh Stephenson. Lecturer, department of journalism. City University

I looked quickly through the research transparency review time allocation schedule when I found it in my pigeonhole in April and thought it must be an elaborate All Fools' Day joke. It was a perfect spoof on all those increasingly absurd forms that came with research assessment exercises and teaching quality assessments. So I had my chuckle and threw it in the bin.

But, in June, a note came down from on high that was polite but firm: "According to my records ... not yet returned ... in respect of the period 10 January to 30 April ... sensible reasons will be accepted ... however, for the following periods ... keep records ... properly completed return, etc". So I asked for another copy and read it properly.

It is a joke. The time allocation schedule that we have been asked to fill in is the sort of form that could only be sent out by a mad person or a bureaucrat who has never taught, or done anything else.

Now I was not just reluctant to fill in the form. I realised it was impossible to complete it in any meaningful way. Its authors start from the assumption that there is no link between research and teaching. But that is not true. They assume people have ideas only during their working week and can record on a timesheet whether this was a research, teaching or "other" idea that came to them when they were in either T, R or O mode. Accountants and lawyers may fill in timesheets like this to give their firms some basis for extorting excessive fees from their clients. But even they know what is going down on the sheets is unreal.

Take this example. Suppose I am a very slow reader and have decided to write a series of articles for a learned journal to win brownie points for the next RAE. In the next office my colleague has made the same decision, but reads very quickly. We both start with thorough literature searches. As a slow reader, I make up time by spending minutes preparing my lectures. My colleague, however, reads quickly and so spends a proper amount of time preparing to teach. We both produce good articles. But our RTR schedules suggest I did more research than her.

It is nonsense. It makes the mistake of assuming that, in a non-market sector activity, input is a usable surrogate measure of the value of output. But it is not. Is it not alarming that policy decisions may eventually be based on data that are nonsense? What on earth was the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals doing allowing this scheme to be "piloted" and then "rolled out"? I realise that my gesture in refusing to fill in this form is futile, but some worm has got to turn.

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