June 13, 2003

Publish or Perish: the UK's RAE

So, in order to get the money necessary to teach undergraduates, academics are being forced to produce a fixed quota of books they have neither the time nor the inclination to write, which nobody particularly wants to read; an exercise that deprives their students of the only benefit they can give them, which is teaching time and expertise (even if this is only snoozing pleasurably as a student reads out his first-year essay on the origins of the Peloponnesian war).

-- Rachel Johnson, "Publish or be damned"

Via Chris Bertram of Junius, Rachel Johnson takes issue with the UK's Research Assessment Exercise, which subjects university teachers "to a production quota for published work that makes Stalin’s five-year plans look positively market-driven."

When the department of Modern History at Oxford dropped from a 5* to a 5 rating (there are seven possible grades, from 0 to 5*), "the loss of the star resulted in the deduction of a full 1 million from the faculty’s government grant." In addition to the loss of cash, writes Johnson,

donnish pride took a further kicking when the history department at Oxford Brookes University (aka the poly) was given a higher rating than the one at the university, where titans have numbered Richard Cobb, Richard Southern and Eric Hobsbawm among them. The former poly’s history department was graded 5* to the university’s 5.

Well, not that we didn't already know it, but I think we can now officially declare that the days of the gentleman-scholar are over. In Johnson's characterization, the RAE is based on the premise that "those in receipt of public money must be quality-controlled, audited and assessed on a continuous basis." I suppose one could argue (and no doubt its defenders do argue) that this quality control process (though perhaps it should be termed a quantity control process?) represents a democratization of the bestowing of prestige (not to mention money). Here is a process, after all, through which the department at Oxford Brookes earns a higher rating than the department at Oxford.

But I think Johnson is right to point out that all of this comes at the expense of teaching:

To recap: at a time when the government is increasing hugely the numbers of students entering higher education (OK, partly now by allowing catering colleges to call themselves universities, but still) and asking parents to pay for their tuition, those responsible for teaching them are being judged not by their teaching skills but by what they have managed to get between hard covers or into learned journals. Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 13, 2003 12:18 AM

I can imagine a useful standard for a democratic scholarly book; one that might be simpler than the complete footnoted truth, but had the footnotes; and which was interesting enough to make some of its readers search out the subtler arguments.

I find I am afraid to propose an example in history or literature, since I'm probably sadly middlebrow. Braudel? Byatt's essays? Is there anyone who was considered Respectable if not Tenurable before being widely read?

(Math books are maybe worse: I'm not sure the Wolfram-seduced even read his endnotes, let alone other people's work; Mandelbrot and Mitchell and Lindenmayer probably do bring people in through computing.)

Posted by: clew at June 13, 2003 02:43 PM