Chair's report, 2001-2002


Last year's report, by the splendidly efficient Bob Sharples, began by observing that 2000-1 was the year of Subject Review and the Research Assessment Exercise. 2001-2 was the year when RAE ratings improved to the point that the Higher Education Funding Council failed to deliver the funding. There was a long delay between the publication of the ratings and the transmission of such feedback as HEFCE rules allow, and a further delay before Panel 57's overview report appeared on the RAE website. The Quality Assurance Agency attempted a 'light touch' version of Subject Review, and colleagues in Scotland found that it was just as expensive as the previous version. Just before Results Day in August, research demonstrated yet again that A level results do not successfully predict final degree results. That was said in the early 1960s, and probably earlier: can readers of the Bulletin remember its first appearance? As this report goes to the Editor, serious concerns about A level marking are under investigation. Students are naturally indignant after years of hard work for school tests, culminating in the excessive workloads of AS and A2. University teachers are more than ever concerned about helping their students to progress from the 'dependency culture' that results from years of intensive teaching for exams. Media reports, and the Minister for Higher Education, said that admissions tutors rely too heavily on A level grades, should take other factors into account, and should seek out the brightest students. Admissions tutors were probably too busy to reply that they always do take other factors into account in making offers, and what did anyone think they were doing except to seek out the brightest students? (Apart, that is, from teaching those they already have, and fulfilling all the other duties of full-time academics.)

Global league tables were once again published in the broadsheets, all different, all making different mistakes. The Times table of Top Classics Departments differed from the table in the Times Higher, but both listed one department that was about to complete its three-year transfer to its neighbour, and another that its university was already proposing to close. There was a majority vote in Council for a proposal that the Chair should write to the Guardian opposing the principle of global league tables that produce a single ranking, and raising specific questions about the Guardian league table. There are divergent views on whether such protests have the desired (or any) effect, but please continue to note any inaccuracies about your department in future league tables. You will find several good questions about the validity of their methods and criteria in the Guardian Good University Guide (May 2002).

CUCD officers are used to the question 'What does CUCD actually do?' See, of course, our website. CUCD collects and transmits information and comment on our subject, and is the envy of many other subject-associations for its efficient and amicable networking. You can find out from the website where the classical departments are and (from the Classical Association link) who teaches in them; how many students have chosen our subjects; and who might agree to be your next external examiner. The Bulletin and the minutes of Standing Committee and Council are also on-line. CUCD statistics are available to help colleagues, and the Chair can join with the other classical associations when we are asked to support a department under threat. Thanks to CUCD consultations, the Chair can respond with confidence when, eventually, we are asked to comment on RAE, and with total confidence if anyone asks for our views on Teaching Quality Assessment. Peer review is fundamental for RAE and for Arts and Humanities Research Board funding, and our membership suggests for the relevant databases the names of colleagues who could do the job. We responded to the AHRB and British Academy reviews of graduate studies, which may well make a difference to the next generation of classicists. This year, we have also pooled information on how to place intensively taught language students in a higher funding band; but this, like so much else, awaits the funding allocations made in the government's Spending Review.

All this useful work depends on the departmental contacts who consult their colleagues and provide the information. Many thanks to all who respond. Thank you, especially, to Standing Committee and to its officers: the Webmaster (Nick Lowe), the Editor of this Bulletin (Teresa Morgan), the Statistics Officer (Graham Shipley) and the Media Officer (Roy Gibson), and to our representatives on the Learning and Teaching Support Network (Liz Pender, to be succeeded by Diana Spencer). Liz Pender, George Boys-Stones and Nick Lowe have sorted out the CUCD archive and ensured that there are complete runs of the Bulletin, undaunted by one discovery that they were three Bulletins short of a full set. Two of our officers finish their terms this November: our calm and efficient Treasurer, Keith Rutter, and our Secretary, Liz Pender, whose energy and commitment is one more proof of the special affinity between CUCD and ancient philosophers. We are most grateful for all they have done, and look forward to welcoming their successors.

Chairs normally serve a three-year term: I take this opportunity to say that I intend to demit in November 2003, when the new Secretary and Treasurer have settled in, because I have taken on some AHRB responsibilities. Standing Committee does not see a conflict of interest, and previous Chairs have successfully combined several classical jobs, but there are advantages in having a range of people to do them. Please think about candidates, and assure them that CUCD work is both interesting and valuable.

My chief CUCD-related memory of this highly charged year is the moment when I asked Standing Committee whether the time had come to consult our member departments about their experience of Subject Review. This question prompted an explosion - expressed with Standing Committee's usual courtesy, but still an explosion. Most of us have colleagues who trained as Subject Reviewers. A few idealists had hoped to improve the quality of teaching; others had been told by their university that someone had better learn the ropes, and had been too conscientious to say 'well, it won't be me'. The reviewers present on Standing Committee spoke with passion about the damage to collegiality and the waste of time and energy and money that could have gone to students. They had usually found something that could be improved or rethought, but nothing that would justify the time and expense of the exercise. Should we, then, have a consultation? Standing Committee thought that nobody wanted one. Later in this Bulletin, Jan Parker (one of the idealists) suggests that there is something we can rescue from the wreck and maybe even use to enhance the quality of teaching, as distinct from writing essays in Qaahili. (Note to future students: Qaahili is another name for QAA-speak.)

Standing Committee thought that CUCD should consult its members about RAE, as past experience suggested that HEFCE would ask for comment at short notice, probably in the middle of August or, alternatively, the busiest part of October. Departments were invited to make any comments they wished, with a guarantee that no respondent would be identified. Standing Committee was especially interested in the following questions:

  1. RAE criteria were formulated in consultation with subject-associations and their members. Would you now wish to make changes to the criteria that were agreed?
  2. Panel 57 specified (RAE 5/99, 3.48.11) that it would formulate its judgement on the basis both of cited publications and of research culture. Do you think this is right, or do you think that panels should give more weight to one or the other?
  3. Panel 57 also specified (RAE 5/99, 3.48.12) that outputs would be judged solely on research quality according to the criteria (3.48.16), and that no form of output would be regarded as intrinsically superior to any other. Do you think this is right?
  4. Panel feedback was restricted by HEFCE rules. Could it be made more specific without (for instance) undermining those colleagues who are not singled out for praise? Do you wish to comment on responses in your own university?
  5. Have you any comments on Panel 57's overview report (available at In particular, the panel notes that several relevant units were returned to other panels (archaeology, history, history of art) - was this a problem for your department?
  6. Do you think RAE should be abandoned? If government requires some form of research assessment to continue, are there ways of making it convincing but less burdensome?
Responses will be discussed at Council in November and reported in next year's Bulletin. At the time of writing this report, several responses are still awaited, and some colleagues want to raise the questions at a departmental or faculty meeting. It is too soon to generalise, but one concern is obvious: RAE and TQA, both as systems and as they are interpreted by university managers, pull in opposite directions. Colleagues are urged to apply for research funding because success is 'evidence of esteem' in RAE and because they will not otherwise have time to publish their research by the RAE deadline. Their success means heavier workloads for those who are not on leave, including the mentoring of new colleagues who are in temporary posts replacing those on research leave, and departments may have to rework their teaching programmes at short notice. The mass of information provided to RAE panels does not include staff-student ratios and average teaching loads, although UK universities are distinctive in that research-active academics teach undergraduate and graduate students and take responsibility for pastoral care.

AHRB and British Academy reviews of graduate studies are now published, and our contribution to them is recognisable. Both reviews concluded that it is not difficult to see why able students think twice before going into graduate work. They are already in debt from their undergraduate degrees, and they envisage more years in debt while they work under pressure to complete a doctorate. They can see that academic salaries are absurdly low for the years of training and the level of responsibility, and the more they understand about the working lives of their supervisors, the more they can see that the traditional compensations are being eroded. In the late 1960s beginning academics knew we would never be rich, but our pay was approximately the same as in the civil service, and the company was better and the work more interesting and more flexible than in most jobs. The company is still good, the work is still interesting, but underfunding and bureaucracy have had their effect. HEFCE recently employed a firm of consultants who characterised the Arts and Humanities ethos as 'excellence in poverty'. There are plenty of classical precedents for that: perhaps Research Skills Training should always include a module on the Cynics.

But aside from that, Mrs Lincoln . . . Perhaps this is the moment to state the obvious, namely that this report expresses my personal opinions, which are not necessarily those of CUCD or of my university. So first, a statistical point: you may be interested to know that, according to the CA lists, in March 2001 the UK had 12 women professors of classical subjects (including Byzantinists) and 72 men professors.

Useful classical organisations continued their quietly useful work. The Classics LTSN, which now has funding until 2004, continued its innovative policy of asking its subject-group what would be helpful and attempting to supply it. CUCD is collaborating with CA and the Joint Association of Classical Teachers on the brilliant idea originally known as Charlotte's Web. C-Web, suggested by Charlotte Roueché, will be hosted by King's College London. It will provide students, teachers, media, Minimus fans, Maximus fans and other interested parties with information on what Classics is, why schools and universities should teach classical subjects, where teaching is available, what graduates in classical subjects do next, and anything else that is useful. Hyperlinks can take users to departmental webpages, on-line resources and other tendrils of the classical grapevine.

Schools and colleges continue to produce very able students who sign up for the range of classical degrees. Some of those students continue to postgraduate work, and others may be encouraged by proposals (under consideration by AHRB and the BA) for a PhD that allows a longer period of training in languages and other technical skills. There are well-qualified applicants for Classics PGCE, and applicants for university posts, even for short-term jobs, have an impressive range of skills and experience. Most university shortlists in our subject now include applicants from continental Europe, especially Germany and the Netherlands and Italy, where very well-trained young scholars emerge from their long preparation to find that there are no jobs. A government review of the arts and humanities has concluded that we need a research council, with favourable consequences for funding, rather than a research board. It is evident how good we are at research, they said, from those RAE ratings. AHRB already has an observer role at the joint meetings of the research councils of the United Kingdom. You will be pleased to know that their acronym is RCUK.

Gillian Clark
University of Bristol
September 2002

CUCD Bulletin 31 (2002)
© Council of University Classical Departments 2002

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