Young scholars lose out in RAE

September 9, 2005

Mounting pressure on young academics is a key concern raised in responses to the proposed ground rules for the 2008 research assessment exercise.

The issue emerged in a poll of subject associations and societies by The Times Higher a week before the deadline for responses to the proposed RAE criteria.

The rules were published by the 15 main panels and 67 subject sub-panels in July, giving academics two months to respond.

While official responses have not been finalised, the heads of organisations voiced a number of concerns about the new criteria.

Roger Woods, professor of German at Nottingham University and chair of the University Council of Modern Languages, said expectations that academics should submit four research papers could place even more pressure on young researchers.

While some flexibility has been proposed around this rule, it did not explicitly recognise the "tremendous pressure" facing young academics to "perform on all fronts", he said He added: "New academics are often busy with formal training to learn how to teach properly. They have to show excellence in research, teaching - and have heavy administrative loads." The criteria did not adequately recognise research potential or new, exciting work, particularly relevant for younger scholars, he said.

University departments will be awarded "quality profiles" detailing the proportion of academics in four research ratings in the 2008 exercise - to replace the single crude ratings of past RAEs.

This could put researchers under more scrutiny early on in their careers, some believe.

Miriam David, chair of the Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences, is concerned that department profiles could lead to academics being individually rated, which could have a "problematic impact on academics' careers". She said: "We should be moving towards a system that is more institution based and peer reviewed."

Game-playing

One reason for broader staff profiles is to stop universities game-playing, witnessed in past RAEs in the battle for single ratings.

Yet a bugbear of previous assessment remains for RAE 2008 - that funding decisions will be made only after the results of the exercise are known.

Sean McWhinnie, science policy manager for the Royal Society of Chemistry, said lack of clarity about how RAE outcomes would be funded will make it difficult for departments to decide which staff to include in their submissions.

"You have to ask whether things are being set up without people realising that after the next hurdle they will face big funding problems," he said.

Research measures

Another concern is the balance given by the panels to measures of research standing, such as papers, environment and esteem, including prestigious fellowships and speeches at major conferences.

Fiona Martland, executive secretary of the Engineering Professors' Council, said there was concern that her subject panel would base only 50 per cent of rankings on outputs such as papers.

Jan Parker, chair of the Humanities and Arts Higher Education Network, said she was unhappy her panel had allotted only a 10 per cent weighting to esteem measures. "I understand it is more difficult to judge these factors fairly, but I think they should be given more importance," she said.

But Allister McGregor, of the Development Studies Association, said:

"Esteem could be overplayed by the powerful. The danger in all of this is that those who are already successful will just pat each other on the back."

RAE officials will meet subject with associations in the coming months before the final criteria are published in January 2006.

tony.tysome@thes.co.uk

THE EXPERT RESPONSES

* "There has to be some way of doing the RAE better, but we are not convinced this is it. People will manipulate the system because academics are very good at game-playing."

Fiona Martland, Engineering Professors' Council

* "My concern is the ability of panels to consider interdisciplinary work. There is a system of cross-referral, but this is so narrow it will not cover adventurous work. That could cut innovative research."

Jan Parker, Humanities and Arts Higher Education Network

* "No notice is taken of the peer-review processes scientists participate in. Apart from the enormous amount of time it takes to do this, it is a reflection of an individual's expertise and esteem."

Caroline Wallace, Institute of Biology

* "Clearly, the panels and sub-panels have had difficulty in formulating an algorithm that translates vague terms such as 'internationally excellent' into a number of stars."

Norman Biggs, London Mathematical Society

* "One key concern is that the RAE has the potential for research to become driven by the publishing agenda, which addresses an academic peer group rather than practitioners."

Roland Kaye, Chartered Institute of Management Accountants

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