Real research can't be graded

The Government's attempt to measure the quality of research in universities by a special committee will mean the death knell of originality. Stop it now.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

What is the difference between the USSR and the RAE? Here is a clue. The Soviet Union was a bad idea, dreamed up by well-intentioned people who knew nothing about competition or market forces; it worked disastrously; and it was at its most effective in producing corruption. Yes, got it. There are four letters, not three, in the acronym USSR.

What is the difference between the USSR and the RAE? Here is a clue. The Soviet Union was a bad idea, dreamed up by well-intentioned people who knew nothing about competition or market forces; it worked disastrously; and it was at its most effective in producing corruption. Yes, got it. There are four letters, not three, in the acronym USSR.

The latest 2001 version of the Research Assessment Exercise, the government-run effort to try to measure the quality of research in our universities, is lumbering into view. Yet it would be best to shut the whole thing down.

First, the RAE encourages standardisation. Quality is judged by, of all things, a committee. In a creative activity like research, this is a death knell. The whole point of research is iconoclasm. The last thing a society needs is conventional academics doing conventional work approved of by a conventional committee.

How is a panel going to react to originality? Often badly. Do you think a committee would have liked Darwin or William Shakespeare or Barnes Wallis? Imagine the Government bringing in an RAE-equivalent in painting, or the theatre, or film-making, or journalism. The result would guarantee a Britain that was dull, second-rate, conservative, uniform.

Second, past RAE results have been used to mislead parents and students. Our universities have concealed from the public the meaning of the letters A, B, C, D and E. If you are a university teacher, you know what I mean. And if you are a teacher or pupil or parent, you have no idea. Yet these letters are crucial to understanding the RAE results. They tell you the proportion of staff entered by a university department in the research assessment exercise. The letter A means you put in more than 95 per cent of your people, B means you entered only 80 per cent of your people, and so on down to C, D, E. Plenty of UK university departments quietly put in only a third of their people, for example. But they forget to mention this in university prospectuses, league tables, and guides. At RAE time in 1996, most universities - the few exceptions included Cambridge, Warwick, LSE and Lancaster - hid large numbers of their staff in dark cupboards. And this tactic paid off. So Britain's universities are going to hide even more of their people this time round. Truth and staff morale will be the loser.

Third, the RAE is meant to assess whether British universities are of international quality. However, bizarrely, the committees doing the deciding later in 2001 are not going to include anyone from overseas universities. Hence, grade inflation is certain. The Brits get to decide whether Brits are allowed to call themselves "world class". Foregone conclusion then, because universities have discovered that it is useful for university guides and prospectuses to be able to assert that their research is of international quality. So there will be a proliferation of world-class research rankings in Great Britain.

Later this year, we are bound to hear from the DfEE that the quality of research in UK universities has been proved to have risen, because the 2001 RAE results are better than last time. All very human and predictable, but that does not make it right. If you want to know whether England has a world-class football team, do you ask only English players to form the judging committee? Not if you want an objective answer.

Fourth, the RAE has raised the stress levels among our country's university staff. Fine, you might think. Let them worry and work until midnight. Unfortunately, the job of being a university lecturer is now not a very good one. Just as we are finding for teachers, you can beat up on them and inspect them and belittle them and bury them with paperwork. But what you cannot do is compel them to do the job in the first place. Call it the revenge of the free.

Fifth, the RAE gets too many people doing too much research. We have to face facts: hardly anyone has important research ideas and the good stuff is not done because of the RAE. World-moulding material gets produced by the people who can't sleep at night because the ideas are bursting out of them. Iconoclastic researchers are born, not made; they cannot be stopped, only impeded; they respond unpredictably to incentives; they are prisoners of their own restlessness, insecurities, arrogance, obsessiveness and originality. In research, it is mostly these folk who matter. The first thing you realise when you look at electronic citation indexes is that 1 per cent of the people do 99 per cent of the influential things. After their deaths, only a tiny fraction of academics are remembered for even a single article or book. So it does not make sense for Britain to force all academics to engage in an activity for which they are often unsuited. For most people, most of the time, it is the quality of teaching and student pastoral care that matters much more. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Sixth, the RAE is costly. Universities are already swimming in paper. It is halfway up the windows and spilling into the corridors. Uselessly. The RAE is mad, bad and sad. It is the weakest link. I'll give you one guess which word comes next.

education@independent.co.uk

Comments