The past three years have unfolded for me a fascinating variety of differences below the surface similarities of higher education in the UK (and, within the UK, between Scotland and England) and the USA. One may begin with the extent to which marking is monitored here (two internal markers per essay or exam, plus an external evaluator at the Honours level), the ethos of student life (the library here is jam-packed much of the time; you would never have one of those ‘library’s empty, cut the hours’ meetings that I’ve been part of at US institutions), and proceed to plenty of other differences. I’ll expatiate about other differences another time, I’m sure.
This morning, though, I’m moved to explain one of the most barbaric and counterproductive aspects of higher education in the UK, namely, the Research Excellence Framework. Technically, it is usually identified by its initials preceded by an intensifying modifier: ‘the accursed REF’, ‘the *#$€!¥!#* REF’, for instance.
In order to understand the *#$€!¥!#* REF, you should bear in mind that universities over here have for the past century or so been funded almost exclusively by the government. That’s a system that has cultivated one of the outstanding educational systems in the world, second (perhaps, though it depends on the sample one takes) or superior to the USA. Since the economic collapse (for which the universities and other public services must have been primarily responsible, since it’s our funding being cut and not financiers having to repay the losses their speculation caused), funding for teaching (as distinct from research) is being cut to the bone; for humanities disciplines, our main government contribution will come for research. And the way the government’s research funding is determined is the *#$€!¥!#* REF.
(Research funding was determined by the *#$€!¥!#* REF’s predecessor, the RAE, in the past; since other sources of funding are drying up, though, the research component takes on heightened importance.)
The *#$€!¥!#* REF works this way: at a given moment, every university in the UK will gather pieces of research that represent the work of their staff in various subject areas, and a committee of scholars will evaluate all the books, essays, research reports, whatever, and assign each institution’s staff a piece of the research pie. That moment, for this REF cycle, begins January 2014. All across the UK, academics are straining to make sure that they have four significant publications in print before that deadline — all at once, except for the elect who have already published four estimable works.
Before I proceed to adumbrate several of the manifold degrees of madness this entails, let me stipulate that I am earnestly in favour of making institutions accountable for the funds they expect from the public. I’m not sure we’ve arrived at an optimal means of doing that, especially since different unis contribute to the public in different ways, but I affirm the principle, and I understand that a particular attempt to realise that principle will be flawed until such time as an optimal method of assessment emerges radiant and glorious from the minds of researchers, teachers, bureaucrats, political shills, and media moguls (you may guess that I do not expect that day to come soon).
Let’s grant, for the moment, that ‘publications’ provide a sound measure of the quality of an institution’s staff. That’s an unstable premise, but as a crude indicator it has been honoured by time and practice. Why on earth would one construct a system that samples the recent publications from every department in the UK all at once? It would make a great deal more sense to construct a rolling evaluation pattern (comparable to accreditation intervals in the USA) so that the process doesn’t generate panic-publishing across the universities at the end of a REF cycle. That would also permit the assessors to give more attention to the particulars of the work they examine (how carefully is anyone’s article on Dryden going to be read, among the thousands of contributions in the field of English Lit?).
Moreover, in an entirely predictable move, certain universities are conducting raids on the staff of others, cherry-picking research stars so that the rich remain richer while struggling departments lose what little research heft they gift have attained. If some uni decides that they’d like to add my REF contributions to their pool, so long asa I’m added to their roster in time for the December 2013 deadline, my book and articles count for them, leaving Glasgow without time to replace me for their REF roster. The pragmatically cynical predation that ensues has nothing whatsoever to do with promoting research excellence or evaluating particular universities; once the REF standing has been set, the department can let the department staff dwindle to insignificance, without penalty.
Finally, this morning, note that this system obliges scholars continually to be generating bits and bobs of research, and discourages scholars from projects whose long gestation might be justified by their profundity. A monograph and an article weigh the same in the REF (each is one publication), so although the exercise might provide a salutary brake on the mind-boggling multiplication of academic monographs, it accelerates the publication of an avalanche of articles in journals that owe their existence to the pent-up pressure to have venues for all the requisite REF-able articles.
I arrived over here partway through the REF cycle, not having been preparing to participate in such an exercise, so I’ve had to launch an energetic spasm of publishing activity; I think I’m all set now, so this is no skin off my nose. But it’s still a veritable Mad Hatter’s picnic of academic-government folly, and in its sound effort to parcel out funding in a way that correlates to productive use of those funds, it generates instead a carnival of counterproductive bureaucracy, manipulation, system-gaming, and dubious scholarship. If there’s not a better way, I suspect that just having a minister say Aye or Nay about particular funding lines makes about as much sense.