Wizards will replace the witch with a worse evil

March 31, 2006

Ding-dong the RAE's gone, but malevolent mandarins are unleashing an even darker force, says John Sutherland

There are university teachers in mid-career whose entire working lives have passed under the research assessment exercise regime. Ding-dong, the wicked witch is dead. Euphoria is in order. The passing of the RAE qualifies, if not a as a 1789 or a 1989, at least as another 1963 - that bright new morning when the Robbins report ushered in a new era of enlightened expanded and valued higher education. Free at last.

It is, however, significant (and some would say sinister) that the abolition of the RAE has not come from irresistible pressure below but from stern discontent above the university world, its paymasters in the Treasury.

Their reasons for dismantling the inspectorial apparatus are, at this stage, inscrutable. But one reason, surely, was that players in the RAE game had become too good. Academics are smart. Give them a problem ("how can we get a 5*?", for example) and they'll solve it. Too many departments were getting high scores. Was it a genuine qualitative improvement or was the system becoming more expert in jumping the RAE hurdles?

More irritating for the mandarins, the RAE is money-consequential: higher scores and more high-scoring institutions put greater pressure on a finite resource. The country cannot afford too many top-rated universities. They cost too much.

Those who fondly hope for a return to the old University Grants Committee days and its "arm's length" principle will be disappointed. In that happy time, the Department of Education just threw the money over the universities' wall, and, behind that wall, each institution used its share as it thought best. That, manifestly, is not going to happen after 2012.

We are told that the Treasury intends to replace the RAE with what this paper has called research assessment metrics, or RAM. Quantitative data, results that can be measured and compared, are now to be the indices of quality. In America, they are called "objective criteria". Mensuration is in line with new Labour's addiction to "leading indicators" and "targets".

How much external funding does a department pull in? How many hits do staff rack up in the humanities, science and social science indices? How many top-ranked prizes have been won? There is, as always, safety in numbers. No fuzzy considerations of "reputation", "esteem" or "international eminence"

to cloud assessment.

The age of the RAM will require a profound change of practice for arts and humanities departments. They are fuzzy to the core and proud of it. In the last RAE return I helped prepare, I included, for consultation in my department, a section dealing with colleagues' book advances and sales.

Although impressive and highly creditable, these data were voted into extinction as ineffably "vulgar". The fact that, for example, a colleague's scholarship was thought to be worth a hundred grand by a commercial publisher was irrelevant. Or unmentionable. But in future - with the obvious qualifications - this kind of "metrical" information might well be usefully factored in: together with the percentiled scores that websites now offer on the basis of aggregated reviews (my last book got 68 per cent), and citations. Humanities will have to find ways of metricating its performance or lose out.

Nobody loves you, the song says, till you're dead and gone. Was there anything good, loveable even, about the RAE? It did, undeniably, sharpen attention. With its rapidly pulsing rhythm, it prodded slowcoaches into action. No longer could one spend the best part of a career "maturing" a project. The RAE evened the playing field, created by aeons of prejudice, between Oxbridge and the rest. By encouraging headhunting, it moved scholars around - the more circulation in an educational system, the better, for both ideas and personnel. The published results encouraged institutions to invest in departments with low scores and leave departments with high scores well alone: both came out ahead.

The downsides of 15 years of the RAE are universally complained about. It was gladiatorial, pitting colleague against colleague, department against department. It led to institute-dictated, rather than independently conceived research. It used up a fearful quantity of academic time and energy that could have been better devoted to scholarship and teaching. It made everyone nervous and too many feel second rate. But, nonetheless, we'll miss it. More so when the ratchet of "metrication" begins to bite into academic flesh.

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe professor emeritus at University College London.

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