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.

The Government’s new curiosity about what universities are doing with the state’s money, and the brazen publication of the results of their investigations, have had a bracing effect. Nor, on the whole, do British universities – which are by international standards excellent – have much to fear from inspection, however rigorous. None the less, the mechanics of the exercise have been imperfectly thought out. In the teaching assessment the unevenness of a playing field which the Government perversely insists is level threatens to make a mockery of the operation. What happens is that a team of four to five academics, with a few days’ training and clutching a centrally devised ‘template’ with which to assay quality, parachutes in on a department for a three-day ‘visitation’ in term-time. Several months’ notice is given, encouraging the erection of Potemkin villages and the laying of paper trails. Teams of inspectors vary in composition and predilection, although there are safeguards against malice or manifest incompatibility. A more questionable feature of the exercise is that ‘quality’ is construed as something relative. Departments, it is decreed, are to be judged by their own criteria – as laid down in their internal ‘mission statements’, ‘strategic plans’ and ‘educational objectives documentation’. An old-fashioned department (one that demands an intimate knowledge of Beowulf) can be excellent in an old-fashioned way. A new-fangled department (one that requires students to devote the bulk of their time to deconstructive analysis of Beavis and Butthead) can be excellent in its new-fangled way. A department which uses a lecture system unchanged from medieval times will not (so long as it lectures excellently) lose out to a department which uses hypertextual, interactive computer packages and remote teaching systems. Staff-student ratios (which can vary between 1:8 and 1:20) are not presumed to affect quality. The assessors claim to have no prejudicial views on modularity, semesterisation or course content. They don’t have views on anything except ‘quality’ – as they vacuously conceive it.

The most serious objection to the exercise is its affront to common sense. Suppose, by some miscarriage, the study of English at Oxbridge were pronounced ‘unsatisfactory’ and the same subject at the new University of Neasden (formerly the Polytechnic of North-North-West London) pronounced ‘excellent’. This could conceivably arise from strict interpretation of the ‘value-added’ criterion. Both institutions award a majority of second-class degrees. But Oxbridge accepts only students with the highest A-level qualifications, and thus makes second-class products out of first-class materials. Its educational process demonstrably subtracts value in most cases. Neasden takes students with minimal A-level qualifications and makes second-class products out of fourth-rate materials. Its educational process demonstrably adds value in most cases. But even with the assessors’ seal of disapproval brought to his attention, would a qualified school-leaver turn down his place at Porterhouse? Such a student would be swayed by a whole range of externalities. Oxbridge is the embodiment of five centuries of lavish investment in people, books, buildings and nationwide networks of prestige and power. Its accumulated quality is reflected in kudos and reputation which make even three years’ neglect by sherry-sodden tutors and a second-class degree possessions of greater value in later life than Neasden’s unglittering prizes. The new universities represent at most two decades of underfunding and ill-thought-out political initiatives (some have been three different kinds of institution in twenty years, before the Government slapped the ‘university’ label on them in the early Nineties). The Government’s insistence that a university is a university is a university and what goes on in their classrooms can be subjected to uniform assessment makes no more sense than saying that the Olympics and the Special Olympics are the same kind of athletic event.

It looks as if the teaching assessment programme is to have its teeth drawn over the next few months by the abolition of the ‘excellent’ grade. The universities, through their vice-chancellors, have objected that the broad-band ‘satisfactory’ (i.e. second-best) label – which most institutions achieve – lessens the attraction of their educational product to overseas customers, who want only the best. It is an argument which will carry weight. But if the classifications are relaxed it will be a lost opportunity. What is needed is just the opposite. The categories should be toughened and linked to a programme of reform, itself linked to clear long-term policies for higher education. It is not desirable to take a stand on the Beowulf and Butthead question, but the Department of Education and Science should decide whether it favours the intensive small-group teaching widely practised by the old universities, or the cost-effective, technology-aided, large-group methods used (of necessity) in the new universities. Or if it wants both, on the wishy-washy grounds that both can be equally excellent, is the Exchequer prepared to pay for both in perpetuity? More important, the Government must decide whether it wants an equitable distribution of resources (as happens in countries like Germany) or an inequitable distribution, grossly favouring Ivy League/Russell Group universities. If, as seems likely, it is tending towards élitism it would be unwise to dismantle what little diagnostic machinery there is in place.

The research assessment exercise is generally less contentious, although it has been found more burdensome by serving academics. Most departments will have had to make research returns for 1989, 1992 and now again for March 1996. Three assessments in seven years verges on harassment. There are, however, significant changes in the 1996 exercise. Effectively, every full-time member of a department is invited to cite up to four publications, or equivalent scholarly items (broadcasts or public lectures, for instance), produced between January 1990 and April 1996. Works ‘in press’ will not, this time round, be eligible, and to compensate the starting date has been pushed back two years. In previous rounds prize departmental exhibits were allowed to be starred – the implication being that the central panel of assessors would read, or at least look at them. That pretence has been dropped, and we must assume that in 1996 judgments will be made impressionistically on the basis of imprint prestige, half-remembered reviews, word-of-mouth reports. It can hardly be otherwise. In populous subject areas like English and History, there will be up to 1200 submissions. Even with division of labour by specialism, it is impossible that any part-time jury-sized panel – of which there is only one for each subject area – could read such mountains of technical material.

In 1996, no aggregate totals of publications will be required; four per person is the limit. As circular RAE96 1/94 primly puts it, quantity, however high, ‘is not considered necessarily to be an indicator of research quality’. The HEFCE felt differently in 1992, but were evidently appalled by the Lara-like totals that individuals and departments were clocking up in frantic attempts to impress the assessors. Another significant change from 1992 is that submissions have been decategorised. The elaborate 12-step hierarchy has been abolished, and with it the presumption that a monograph is worth more than an edition, an edition more than an article, an article more than a review. The implication this time round is that a strong article (or even a brilliant review) can outweigh a mediocre book. It is likely that HEFCE registered the fact that its previous protocol was producing ugly rivalries within departments. If one colleague came up with a ton of weighty publications and another colleague hardly anything, how could the egalitarian ethos by which most departments run be maintained? Should not the productive colleague (whose industry and talent produce palpable wealth for everyone) be relieved of distracting teaching and administrative chores? Again, the Provost of University College London took a lead by circulating to his heads of department a letter instructing that colleagues who had not been helpful in the 1992 exercise might be given more teaching, reassigned to such tasks as fire officer and, in incorrigible cases, have it hinted to them that their future lay outside the university sector. The letter was resented, but Roberts was merely saying what other university administrators were thinking and not daring to say.

HEFCE evidently has in mind three criteria in judging a department’s research quality: ‘vital signs’, productivity and the eminence/genius factor. The first of these is designed to locate dead wood. The assumption is that over a six-year period, in which a third of the academic’s working hours have been earmarked for research and up to two sabbatical terms awarded, there should be some evidence of life of the mind in the form of publication. Anyone who publishes nothing, or nothing substantial, is probably burned out, not trying, or no good. It can be objected that some ambitious research projects take decades and that it is not always appropriate to publish work in progress. Very distinguished scholars often lie fallow for long periods. But few serving academics would disagree that six years of professional life should produce something printable, and four publications of some kind is not unreasonable. Departments with numerous nil returns will not do well in the 1996 exercise.

Productivity is a trickier criterion. Although they do not say so, it is clear from earlier rounds that HEFCE rates books very high. Over a six-year period a department aiming for the top grades should expect a majority of established colleagues to have produced something in hard covers with an ISBN. The problem is that in most arts subjects there are more would-be authors than readers. The market cannot absorb the number of books which a fully-productive British academic profession would generate and it would be one of the more horrible circles of hell (reserved for plagiarists and sexual harassers) to have to read them. A solution would be to revalue the refereed article in a learned journal (publications which are more difficult to place than book-proposals) as the hard currency of assessment. And to forestall the greying of departments which is the most obnoxious by-product of the research exercise – books being the fruit of mid and late career – the PhD dissertation should have the highest value of all. This would encourage departments to appoint young graduates still some years away from full book-writing productivity.

The genius/eminence criterion is the trickiest of the three. It is to HEFCE’s credit that it has resolutely judged departments and not individuals within them. But it is clear from the top results in the 1992 exercise that one or two outstandingly gifted or intellectually distinguished colleagues can lift a whole department. It would be ironic if – of all the good things which could be imported from America – HEFCE should encourage the ‘free agency’ system by which colleges measure their worth by the fickle luminaries they can attract by means of vast salaries and generous conditions of work (or its opposite). The free agency system has undermined departmental morale in top American universities in the same way that it has destroyed team spirit in American baseball. Ideally, departments need a range of differently gifted colleagues, loyal to each other, their profession and their students rather than to their bio-bibliographies. Well-balanced departments can even profit from learned colleagues who publish nothing. There are dangers in the 5* grade: if there were anabolic steroids for the brain, a lot of academics would now be gulping them down.

Inspectors will be for academic life in the Nineties what cuts were in the Eighties and student unrest in the Seventies – the main gripe. No foreseeable change of government will bring back the old hands-off principle. But starting as it does from the assumption that universities are an essential component in British society and that excellence comes naturally to them, the inspectorial regime has its welcome aspects. What is desirable is that, at the government end, inspection should be tied into some more constructive aim than lashings of quality. The real task for the Nineties is to appoint a new generation of academics to fill the gaps left by a decade of freeze and contraction.