Susan Bassnett: An exercise in wasting money

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The Independent Online

At a certain point in the year, students start getting anxious because they realise that time is running out.

At a certain point in the year, students start getting anxious because they realise that time is running out. They haven't revised enough for exams, or caught up on enough coursework, or attended enough lectures. That's the point when classes are half empty, when everybody claims to be suffering from flu, because they're desperate for a few more hours, which they imagine will make all the difference.

This year, there is a similar feeling among academics. The start of 2005 is triggering anxiety about the dreaded RAE - the Research Assessment Exercise - that suddenly seems to be looming. It is scheduled for 2008, but the reality is that if you haven't got a book contract or sorted out your funding bids by now, you're running seriously behind. In a few more months, serious panic will set in.

I've said before in this column that the RAE is a disgraceful waste of public money. What started back in the 1980s as a serious attempt to ensure that all academics were productive in research and teaching (we all knew old lags who hadn't written a word for a decade or more) degenerated into a bean-counting exercise that encouraged all kinds of chicanery, if not downright dishonesty. Some of the documentation I saw for the last RAE should have been submitted for a best fiction prize, and some of the sharp practices, the buying and selling, the pay-offs and the horse-trading that went on beggared belief. Nor am I convinced that the quality of anybody's research has improved as a result of all this. I was supposed to be a specialist adviser, which means I was sent items to read and comment on. Judging by some of what I read, the quality has never been lower. It was hard to believe that anybody had even tried to publish some of the stuff I saw, let alone claim it might have international excellence. But then "international" can be interpreted as getting yourself invited by a mate to an insignificant conference across the Channel. You would be amazed how that term "international" gets interpreted. You'd also be amazed by the ways in which peer-reviewing can be fiddled. It's all part of the idiotic, ego-driven, game-playing that underpins such things.

Last time, the stakes seemed high, so people played hard to win. Non-research intensive universities strove to raise the scores from 2s to 3s or even 4s. Russell Group institutions went for 5s and 5*s across the board. What was at stake was not just reputation, but hard cash. And when we saw the results, apart from thinking in some cases that the assessors had taken leave of their senses, you could have been forgiven for thinking that quality had soared in British universities, because all the scores were higher. The result of that "success" was that the Government rethought the distribution of funding, so very few institutions ended up with the glittering prizes they had fiddled so hard to achieve.

Memories of that unsavoury episode have increased anxiety this time round. Some vice-chancellors tried to get the whole thing quashed, so that their staff could get on with the business of doing research without having to fill in endless forms advertising what they should have been doing. Sadly they failed. The juggernaut has started to roll, the Higher Education Funding Council is committed and the tired rhetoric about improved quality, enhancement and world-class research strengths can be heard all over the place. Head-hunters have been employed to sneak people deemed to be research stars away from their old institutions; some places have already held a full, mock RAE; pressure is being brought to bear on those unfortunates who thought they were doing a good job by working on a major piece of original research that can't be speeded up to fit in with the submission date. Vanity publishers, I am told, are becoming more bullish about demanding subventions from their authors, who, poor souls, are desperate to appear in print whatever the circumstances.

Who benefits from all this nonsense? I've yet to find out. Students certainly don't, serious scholars don't, taxpayers don't, specialist subject fields don't and, judging by the latest global university league tables, the nation doesn't either. The RAE is outmoded, wasteful and, ultimately, useless.

The writer is professor of comparative literature at Warwick University