Susan Bassnett: Something is wrong in UK universities and it is driving researchers and lecturers away

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The Independent Online

What distinguishes schools from universities is that in the former, the primary task of the staff is teaching, while in the latter it is a combination of teaching and research. The best universities pride themselves on research-led teaching, and the funding is based on a balance between these two activities.

What distinguishes schools from universities is that in the former, the primary task of the staff is teaching, while in the latter it is a combination of teaching and research. The best universities pride themselves on research-led teaching, and the funding is based on a balance between these two activities.

But lately, something has been going wrong in British universities, and it is driving talented researchers and lecturers out of academic life in droves. It isn't just the low pay either: it's the byzantine systems of monitoring both teaching and research that dominate our lives today.

Let's suppose a Moon-being descends and asks me about British universities. I could praise the variety of institutions, the external examiners who ensure fairness and our international research record. But then I would have to tell Moon Being what else happens in universities these days.

Talking about teaching, I would have to explain what a visit by the Quality Assurance Agency subject specialist inspection team actually means. I would describe the months of preparation, the filing cabinets full of papers, the nit-picking preparation of something called SAD (self-assessment document) that has to be sent off in advance and Moon Being would doubtless remark that all this must surely have an impact on the department that is having to do all this.

I would describe the assessors themselves and, to help Moon Being, I would depict them in terms of breeds of dogs: the terrier who, though puny, yaps a lot and clings on to trouser-legs or evidence of feedback loops; the Rottweiler, cast out from its own institution and banished on to a treadmill of QAA visits; the retired Labrador, slow-thinking and pensioned-off, making up the deficit on a mortgaged semi with a few inspection visits; the poodle, who thinks inspecting others might be a good career move; the retriever, who actually enjoys reading half a hundredweight of paper; and, of course, the beagle, who enjoys hunting and being in at the kill.

The death of the quarry takes place in an arena in which Head Dog, usually either a terrier or a Rottweiler, expands on what the dogs have done, awarding points out of 24. Top marks are ace, of course, but Head Dog always finds something to bark about, and anything below 22 is dead meat. During this meeting, the unfortunate scholars who are being assessed are allowed to say nothing.

I would explain to Moon Being that if any school treated children to a ritual public humiliation in this way by reading out grades and commenting on weaknesses, there would be a national outcry. Moon Being might then protest that a visit from such a pack of hounds cannot be conducive either to scholarship or to collegiality. I would assent, but point out that since universities signed up to this circus in the first place, they have only themselves to blame.

They are responsible, too, for the second inspection system, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which takes place every six years. We are currently on countdown to 31 March when all the documentation has to be ready. I can tell Moon Being that in the three weeks since term began in January, I have spent 24 hours reading and - annotating submissions and discussing department drafts, the equivalent of three full days work.

Moon Being might calculate the hours spent by academics involved in this exercise and ask whether anyone in my university, fourth in the UK for research, has any time left even to open a book. I would explain the RAE is all about money, so it is essential to present the evidence in the best way possible.

All over Britain groups of academics and managers are huddled in rooms trying to hide Dr X's failure to produce a second book, or assessing the likelihood of the panels seeing through the scams of handing out a few thousand pounds to put "Senior Research Fellows" and "Honorary Visiting Professors" on the books for a few months. There has been a positive cattle-market in scholars for the past two years, as universities try to buy up the best of breed to enhance their RAE submissions.

What kind of dogs are the RAE panellists, Moon Being asks? A more upmarket lot altogether: collies, spaniels, Weimaranas, huskies, Pyrenean mountain dogs. For while few of the QAA panels come from top universities, making the so-called "peer" element tough to swallow, quite a few of the RAE panellists have impeccable credentials.

This may be because the exercise only happens every six years. It may be because the quality of the panels reflects a last-ditch stand by universities to maintain some excellence in the teeth of demands from the funding bodies for quality to be quantifiable. Or it may just be that when faced with two evils, anyone engaged in research opts for an RAE panel as opposed to trailing round with the mongrels. The workload for RAE panellists is heavy, but is somehow more dignified, closer to what a university should be really about. There's a message here for someone, Moon Being.

The writer is Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Warwick University

education@independent.co.uk

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