Most academics say the Research Assessment Exercise is a disaster. After nearly 15 years, is it time to change it?by Gordon Marsden / January 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
The time when dons’ reputations could be built on High Table bon mots and eccentric tutorial styles is now an age away. Earlier this year, in his inaugural lecture at the Institute of Historical Research, David Cannadine described “a large and depressed professoriate… with all the frenzied energy of battery chickens on overtime, laying for their lives.”
The Grand Inquisitor towards whom this frenzy is directed is the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), introduced in 1986 as a mechanism for ranking university performance which then acts as the lever to disburse money from the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC). The HEFC is not the only source of funding, but it is a key one and the RAE is its sine qua non-some 95 per cent of the HEFC grant allocation for research is based on RAE assessments. In an education world dominated by league tables, the RAE has become the main source for judgements from the outside: it is used by students applying for courses, academics looking for new jobs and business looking for university partnership. Central to the RAE is the racking up of published articles-hence the pervasive “publish or perish” syndrome.
After nearly 15 years, is the RAE working? Academics have always grumbled about it. But doubts are now multiplying-centred on the fear that it forces university departments to become too narrow and process driven. Cannadine worries that for young scholars trying to secure tenure, the RAE is proving deadly to thinking big and bold: “What might in an earlier era have been one, big, important, ground-breaking article is now salami-sliced into three to give quantity of output… A lengthily researched and deeply pondered book becomes instead a prematurely published survey, or an arid monograph, which almost no one reads.” If such criticism is accurate, who will become the Jacob Bronowskis or AJP Taylors of 2020? Narrow research inevitably widens the gap between scholars and public-and also weakens academic influence in government funding battles.
Criticism of the RAE is not confined to the humanities. The Commons Science and Technology Select Committee has endorsed the comments of the Dearing Report that the RAE did not assess collaborative research well: because of its rating by departments, it acted as a disincentive to multi-disciplinary work-where the real sources of novelty in science lie. The MPs also worried that the RAE “inhibits industry collaboration.”
Then there are the unintended consequences such as…