Education: More research not needed

The welfare of students and university teachers has been sacrificed to 'research', much of it dismally bogus, argues Stephen Logan
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The Independent Online
It is bad (if not surprising) that academics should abuse the research-assessment system. Giving a boost to productivity ratios by concealing the presence of academics who have not published much (EDUCATION, July 16) is only, like "salami publication" - slicing up your research project into small packages for publication - another ruse to ensure survival in a cut-throat game.

Far worse than such self-defensive expedience is the fact that many - perhaps most - academics should apparently have stopped asking whether the system of assessment itself ought to be tolerated. In the Eighties, when it was rumoured that the work of universities was to be assessed by their output of published research, academics protested noisily. There were at least five grounds for protest.

First, the quality of research is not commensurate with its quantity. Secondly, the nature of "research", and its relation to other forms of intellectual activity, differs from subject to subject, and should not be assessed by the single criterion of whether it gets published (not the same, in any case, as whether it is worth publishing). Thirdly, pressure to produce research reduces willingness to teach which, fourthly, makes teaching likely to become a second-order activity and put those engaged in it at risk of being exploited for the sake of supposedly more "productive" researchers. And finally, students would lose out, being deprived of necessary tutorial guidance and increasingly regarded as a commodity convertible into funds for more "research".

None of these arguments has lost its force, but the protest proved ineffectual, having been mounted by individual academics rather than by strategically marshalled groups. And ineffectiveness has bred a sense of resignation. By the time of the second research assessment exercise (RAE), the application of crude quantitative measures was accepted with relatively little demur.

In an environment of short-term contracts and me-first competition, academics already finding it difficult to get or keep a job noticed that the further particulars of many departments boasted of their 4, 5 and 5* ratings, for all the world as if they were an infallible gauge of merit.

As institutions were rewarded for their success in the ratings game, dissent from the suppositions of the game itself was outlawed. A department with a 2 grade, or an individual with a sparse record of publication, found their mouth stopped by the suspicion of sour grapes. What was presented as pragmatic acquiescence in a system imposed by the Government, yielded to casual use of the system by academics as a means of mutual assessment.

Yet, at least as late as 1994, there were signs that the will to appraise the system, instead of merely allowing yourself to be appraised by it, had not been entirely extinguished. There was, of course, the belated introduction by the last Conservative government of an outwardly complementary teaching assessment exercise. But the RAE had already done its work. The supposition was that teaching was primarily an activity for those incapable of writing. Moreover, the categories of the TAE ("Excellent", "Satisfactory", "Unsatisfactory") made the numerical divisions of the RAE seem a feat of super-subtle calibration.

Naturally it can be argued, in time-honoured academic fashion, that the RAE has yielded benefits. Yet the waste is colossal. Having spent most of my academic career under the shadow of the RAE, I feel entitled to say that it has been a disaster, crude in its presumptions, cruel in its effects. It has, in the humanities at least, destroyed more careers than it has made. (Scientists fare better because their previous methods of self-appraisal were more congruent with those of the RAE). And it may be that the careers it has destroyed, belonging in many cases to scholars with a special aptitude for teaching, might have been more conducive to the public good.

Through the RAE we have arrived at the pitiful situation in which the failure to publish indifferent research is commonly construed as failure to do valuable academic work. This is psychologically naive. Any student of literature should know that there is a complex relation between the capacity to nurture accurate and creative thought and the capacity (or will) to convert it into publishable writing.

The welfare of students and of teachers dedicated to teaching has been sacrificed to 'research' , much of it dismally bogus. That it should have been imposed on the universities by the government is regrettable. That it should be so willingly consolidated by academics themselves is tragic.

Those who are looking for an indication of the calibre of intellectual life in British universities will find it less in the research itself than in the ignominious scramble to get it weighed and measured.

The humanities do not need more research. As long ago as 1956, CS Lewis foresaw that research would become an incubus, crushing the life out of scholarship. The shelves of departmental libraries already sag and groan with unread and unreadable journal-fodder. We need more good academic work, in whatever form the talents of the individual cause it to take. And for that we need to be liberated from a hideously oppressive and inappropriate system of assessment.

Dr Stephen Logan is director of studies in English at St Edmund's College, Cambridge