An Inspector Calls

John Sutherland

  • 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.

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