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Again, the origins lie in the Thatcher era. Government has to to fund universities for basic research — and in the hard sciences that means doling out large sums of public money. In the early 1980s, swingeing cuts were made to the funding of higher education. A new — as would now be said “more robust” — rationale was needed for the distribution of the research budget. For decades, it had been handed out according to a formula so arcane that no one could explain it to the incoming head of the University Grants Committee, Sir ­Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of his generation. What the system really boiled down to was “historical principles” — in other words, loadsamoney for Oxford, Cambridge and London, peanuts for the 40 or so other universities.

Swinnerton-Dyer realised that some form of quality control was needed. He focused on the medical and laboratory-based subjects: they were where the serious money was spent and where the opportunity for payback in the national economy was greatest. These were also disciplines in which it was relatively easy to devise an assessment mechanism. Scientific research advances through the publication of new findings in peer-reviewed specialist journals, some of which are more prestigious than others. Research papers are usually relatively short. It would not be too arduous an exercise for universities to ask their scientific researchers to submit their best papers to panels of experts in each discipline, who could come up with a ranking on the basis of which funding could be redistributed. A further ambition was to reward links with industry, in order to stimulate applied research, but this was abandoned in the face of the ivory tower mentality of the older universities. It smacked too much of the sort of thing that went on in polytechnics.

Fatally, though, the civil servants in the Department of Education could not resist the temptation to apply Sir Peter’s proposal across the board. Thus the Research Assessment Exercise (“RAE”) was born. It has dominated academic life ever since, shaping not only publication patterns but also promotions, football-style poaching of superstars, changed teaching patterns and the rooting out of supposed dead wood. Every few years, there is a new RAE in which panels of professors sit in judgement on a set number of publications by every “research-active” university employee in the land. Each department gets a grade and a commensurate amount of funding until the next exercise comes around.

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Joseph Andrews
June 14th, 2008
9:06 AM
Anonymous wonders why Bate wrote this article - it's pretty clear that he did so because he thinks that higher education is mired in bureaucracy and that the idea of assessment by citation is index is barmy and that by saying this in a new journal linked to a think-tank with strong Tory connections, he might get the Tories thinking about a less interventionist approach.

Anonymous
June 13th, 2008
4:06 PM
Mr Bartram indicates that he is a pedant - ignoring the big issues raised by the author at the expense of a small point. Mr Briggs is entirely wrong - modern economies depend on education at tertiary level as the US case proves. They educate more students and spend a far greater % GDP per capita on each. Their research is in larger volume and at least equal in quantity. An excellent article, we need to open higher education to the market and bring in far more money.

William Briggs
June 11th, 2008
10:06 AM
The main problem is that there are too many universities and too many kids going to universities. Kids go to "get a degree", i.e., to add a notch to their resumes and seemingly make themselves more attractive to employers. Who goes to university to learn anymore? Instead of so many universities, there should be in their place technical or trade schools, where kids can go to learn a useful skill, so that they can really learn how to make an efficient sales call or market a "brand", or whatever else is deemed useful by businesses. This would save universities for those who want to really learn. It would reduce the amount of unnecessary "research" pumped out, too. Never happen, of course. Parents want the "brand" of the better school on their kids' resumes.

John Kidd
June 9th, 2008
5:06 AM
An apt and lucid commentary on regrettable trends in modern universities.As a now retired teacher at a leading Australian university I can confirm that the the same corrupted bureaucratic foolishness has now spread far beyond the United Kingdom. While recognising the difficulties inherent in external assessment of the quality of an academic's work, and conceding the necessity of public accountability for that work,the article highlights that the now prevailing bean-counting risks damage to the core function of a university which must remain the fostering of the highest possible standards of scholarship, research and teaching. In that sense a university, in order to justify that name, must be an elite institution of learning.

John Kidd
June 9th, 2008
5:06 AM
An apt and lucid commentary on regrettable trends in modern universities.As a now retired teacher at a leading Australian university I can confirm that the the same corrupted bureaucratic foolishness has now spread far beyond the United Kingdom. While recognising the difficulties inherent in external assessment of the quality of an academic's work, and conceding the necessity of public accountability for that work,the article highlights that the now prevailing bean-counting risks damage to the core function of a university which must remain the fostering of the highest possible standards of scholarship, research and teaching. In that sense a university, in order to justify that name, must be an elite institution of learning.

David Bartram
June 8th, 2008
1:06 PM
It's a good thing Jonathan Bate writes more here about the humanities than about the sciences - a weak grasp of basic arithmetic might be more consequential in the latter. Five million is not, after all, one percent of five billion. The smaller (correct) percentage hardly makes the RAE a bargain - but it does at the very least raise questions about the fact-checking skills of the editors of this new magazine.

Anonymous
June 8th, 2008
12:06 PM
Speaking of the Rae-driven system which Bate so much deplores: it is not clear why he imagines that the `incestuous citation game` hasn`t been in place already for some time; as well as the (to address Haldane`s example) `incestuous non-citation game`. It`s also not clear why Bate wrote this article. Presumably he did not write it to score on `metrics`.

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