An Inspector Calls
- Assessment of the Quality of Education: Circular 3/93
Higher Education Funding Council for England, 17 pp, March 1993
- 1996 Research Assessment Exercise: Circular RAE96 1/94
Higher Education Funding Council for England, 23 pp, January 1994
Government dealings with the country’s agencies for culture and higher learning used to be determined by the arm’s-length principle. That is to say, much like an 18th-century patron, the ministry would give the Arts Council or the University Grants Committee a large sum of money, trusting that they would apply it to Britain’s best advantage. Better poetry and better education would happen. Over the last fifteen years non-intervention has given way to accountability via audit and quality assessment. In universities this means that ‘teaching’ and ‘research’ are now scrutinised and graded by outside panels of peers every three to five years. For teaching, the scale has three steps from ‘unsatisfactory’, through ‘satisfactory’, to ‘excellent’. For research it now goes from 1 (unsatisfactory), through 3a and 3b (the satisfactory grades), to 5 (of the highest international standard) with a pinnacle of 5* (too good for words). ‘Subject areas’ – effectively university departments – are assessed as units. The results are published as league tables. Funding follows excellence in the research exercise (which is in its third fully-fledged round) but not yet in teaching (which is in its first). About 15 per cent of departments make the top division and there is a cluster of high-performing departments in a small nucleus of a dozen or so British universities. Aware of their publicly-ratified superiority, this élite, the so-called Russell Group of universities, has begun to lobby for special status. As a founder member, Derek Roberts, Provost of UCL, puts it, ‘we recognise we are different – or we force everyone to be the same. Either we have an élite of about ten, or we face catastrophe.’
By and large, the new inspectorial regime has done good. ‘Why should dons be judged by their inferiors?’ demanded an indignant educational lord in the Upper House. Because, as every non-don in the country suspects, a profession which requires between eight and fifteen hours’ classroom activity a week, 28 weeks’ teaching a year with one term in nine off as ‘sabbatical’ (a perk which is prudently being renamed ‘study leave’), unrivalled job security, sanctioned moonlighting (what I am doing writing this review), protected freedoms to criticise one’s employer (what I am doing writing this review), a pension indexed to Civil Service standard, professional administrative back-up, a working environment of architectural distinction, generous early-retirement options without penalty, high social status, interesting travel opportunities (exchange years abroad, international conferences and long vacations in one’s second house in the country), a median salary of 1.5 times the national average, and easily earned hero-worship from gifted (and not infrequently beautiful) young people, may, in a tiny proportion of cases, encourage a tendency to idleness, conceit and complacency. It is normal, as a survey in October 1994 indicated, for university teachers to work hard (although the reported 55 hours a week over a 48-week year strains credulity), but the greater part of that work is self-imposed – and not universally. In the past universities have gone easy on the drones who hived with them, regarding their delinquency as the price to be paid for the autonomy of the self-disciplined many. No novel, play or film that I know shows a university teacher in an arts subject slaving 55 hours a week. Nerdy scientists who never sleep are something else: science fiction is full of them.
Vol. 16 No. 22 · 24 November 1994
John Sutherland (LRB, 10 November) draws attention to the comprehensive inadequacies of the Government’s assessment of teaching quality in English universities, which he describes as an affront to common sense. It is, above all, nonsensical to seek to assess the quality of a whole department of perhaps thirty members and four hundred undergraduates in the course of a visit lasting two and a half days, conducted by a motley team of five assessors drawn from disparate backgrounds and ‘trained’ for two days. Yet Sutherland wants the categories (hitherto ‘excellent’, ‘satisfactory’ and ‘unsatisfactory’) toughened. Unfortunately it seems that his wish is to be fulfilled and that tests will now be applied to six criteria with at least four classifications. This will in time lead directly to funding, performance indicators, top-up fees and individuated accounting. The teaching in the institutions with the poorest resources and the lowest staff-student ratios will plummet and a class structure will be introduced to accord with that in society at large. Sutherland has an extraordinary remedy for the present discontents. He wants to hand over to the Government the decision whether teaching should be carried on in small groups or by ‘cost-effective, technology-aided, large-group methods’. Such an abdication of professional responsibility must encourage the Government to intervene even further in matters where it has already shown its incompetence.
Emeritus Professor of Public Law,
Vol. 16 No. 23 · 8 December 1994
In his article on the Higher Education Funding Council for England (LRB, 10 November) John Sutherland says the assessors should ‘revalue the refereed article in a learned journal (publications which are more difficult to place than book proposals) as the hard currency of assessment’.
I have had five scholarly monographs published, plus 15 articles in refereed journals edited on British campuses and eight articles in refereed journals abroad. I have found it much easier to get articles accepted than books: and the more boring and unoriginal the article the easier it is. One of my published books took six years to find a publisher, and another more than two: and I am still looking for a publisher for what is probably the best thing I have written, which was completed in 1982. On the other hand, a chapter of one of my books published in 1978 was accepted by History apparently without any difficulty and printed by someone else as an original essay in 1988. Whatever the situation in the past, most journals exist simply to provide their editors with patronage, and to provide university hacks with a dumping ground for work that wouldn’t interest a commercial publisher. In fact one of the worrying features of the last few years has been the increase in the number of scholarly journals and the falling off in the quality of the articles in the older established ones. No doubt John Sutherland regards this as a trend to be encouraged as a means of further confusing our already dazed government.
John Sutherland’s principal objection to the Research Assessment Exercise is its affront to common sense. Oxbridge, he suggests, could conceivably be graded lower than the University of Neasden. This possibility is only a symptom of the underlying tactic in higher education reform. For relatively small sums of money the meaning of certain words has been radically altered. ‘University’ now means something that includes both Oxbridge and Neasden (to use his examples). ‘Professor’, ‘reader’, ‘lecturer’ and ‘student’ each have plural meanings depending on the university culture which designates the title. We have quickly become skilled at interrogating such titles using a basic historical and geographical knowledge to distinguish between the possible meanings, and consequently little is lost. However, under the RAE two separate professional practices have been condensed into a single word as ‘Research’ becomes synonymous with ‘Publication’. By 1996 there is a distinct possibility that, outside amateur circles, the idea of research not linked to production will be forgotten.
University of Amsterdam