It used to work like this. Dr Bloggs, the brilliant scholar who had solved the problem of the variant quartos of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, was one of the most boring teachers on God’s Earth. Mr Nobbs, who never got around to finishing his PhD on the image of the sea in English Literature, let alone publishing any academic articles, was an awe-inspiring teacher — he had read everything and could instil in his students a passion for the subject that would stay with them all their lives. All the Head of the English Department had to do was give Nobbs a heavy teaching load, which delighted both him and the students, and Bloggs a light one, which also delighted the students and gave him more time alone with his textual collations. The department was a happy place.
But then along came the RAE. Bloggs’s work was just the stuff to bring the department the money that came with a five-star rating. Nobbs, to the distress of the students, was pensioned off as “non-returnable”. The next generation of academics learnt the lesson. They finished their PhDs and started up new journals in which to get their work published. They developed more and more specialised areas of expertise. How to do original research? Keep away from the well-trodden pastures such as Milton and Wordsworth, cultivate instead your status as the world expert on the hitherto neglected writings of Henry Glapthorne and Ann Yearsley. They negotiated light teaching loads and generous “research leave” arrangements. Who can blame them? This was the acknowledged road to advancement. A gift for inspirational teaching of everything from Geoffrey Chaucer to Samuel Beckett was no longer of any interest to the administration in Senate House.
The inevitable development of the “culture of the RAE” was the proposal that recently came out of the History Department at Bristol University. In order to free up more time for their research, the historians decided that they wouldn’t offer final-year students any regular teaching. Instead, each student would spend the year working on a dissertation, with a little light-touch supervision. This would help them develop “research skills” — and give the faculty the extra time it needed to improve its RAE rating. The proposal was quickly withdrawn when students complained that a fee of £3,000 per year seemed a little steep for access to the university library and a collection of online databases.