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This division is a function of the quango­cracy. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (and its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) distributes money to universities for teaching (“T” income, determined by student numbers) and, in a separate budget line, for research (“QR” income, determined by the RAE scores). Mat­erials such as textbooks and teaching packs are specifically excluded from the RAE; they are deemed not to be proper research. In order to maximise research income, universities want all their academic staff to be “returned” to the RAE. So all must publish research. Poor old Ludwig Wittgenstein: he was only the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, but because of his unfortunate tendency to think and to teach rather than to turn out a stream of papers in the Journal of Analytic Philo­sophy, he would in today’s climate have been invited by his Vice-Chancellor to consider the early retirement package.

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.

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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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