Students, not research, deserve the star billing

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The Independent Online

Now that the academic year has ended, many academics are embarking on another round of feverish activity – finalising their submissions for the next Research Assessment Exercise, the dreaded RAE. Introduced in the late 1980s, the RAE was initially a straightforward means of measuring academic research. In principle, it's a good idea – each academic submits four items of scholarly research to be assessed by a review panel of his or her peers.

In addition, a document is sent in that outlines the research culture in their area. This explains how colleagues' work interconnects, what the principal fields of research are, and what research strategy is in place, together with hard information about the number of PhD students, grants obtained, number of publications and so on.

This hardly looks problematic; after all, every academic worth their salt ought to be able to produce four decent pieces of research every six years or so, and preparing a document that gives an overview of the research community in your institution ought to be straightforward .

But what might seem simple from the outside is tortuous when viewed from within. The object of the RAE is to ensure that government funding will follow, and there was considerable bitterness after the last exercise in 2001, when the goalposts were moved at the last minute. This time, the stakes are even higher because the process has changed, and even the grading system is different from previous years. Moreover, there is no consistency across subject areas and each panel has carved out its own set of criteria.

Take, for example, the mysterious "esteem factor", whereby the status of an individuals research is supposedly recognised. The trouble is, different panels give different weighting to "esteem." Get awarded the Nobel Prize in Tibetan, for instance, and you'd only score 5 per cent, but if you were to win it in angling studies, you would score 15 per cent. It doesn't make sense.

The last RAE resulted in what I described in this newspaper as a cattle market, with eminent academics selling themselves to the highest bidder. This time I'd call it a slave market. Not only are people being bought by universities for twice as much as some of their colleagues are earning, but draconian measures are being taken against those whose work is not deemed to be up to standard.

Some places have been operating a traffic-light system for two years in preparation for the 2008 RAE: green means you're OK for the RAE, amber means you have been warned and red means start looking for another job. Whether you can teach is irrelevant.

Concealed behind all the RAE horse-trading is the lack of attention being paid to improving things for students. Some institutions have, in my view admirably, opted out of the RAE altogether, choosing to focus on developing their teaching, reasoning that they are unlikely to gain much financial advantage anyway. Others have put their heads in the sand regarding students and diverted resources to their RAE preparations.

The long term consequences of buying in stars who may be unable to contribute much to the community and to the teaching of students remains to be seen. I know of cases last time where people were paid large sums of money for their RAE publications but who then remained thorns in the side of their harder-working colleagues for years. Those not deemed worthy enough to submit their work for the RAE suffer plummeting morale.

And whatever happens this time round, the signs are that in future we shall be moving towards a crude mechanistic system that will quantify research, using citation indices and columns of figures. How essays on medieval poetry can be quantified remains to be seen, but Gordon Brown was keen on this when he was at the Treasury. So we are likely to hear more of it.

The RAE has become a closed world of its own, cut off from the reality of university teaching and ultimately damaging to innovative, interdisciplinary research. It creates great anxiety, damages collegiality and is an incitement to practices bordering on the rank dishonest. There must be a better way to ensure that research is properly funded and that students, are properly taught.

We need to move beyond the present parochialism. If there are to be peer-review panels, they should be international, and so outside the petty politics of the UK scene. These should be balanced with measurable criteria, and citation indices are a good start. Above all, there should be consistency across the panels. With a decent system in place, academics might be able to get on with their jobs and the academic black market would be a bad memory. I'm not holding my breath.

The writer is a pro-vice chancellor at the University of Warwick