Chair's report, 2002-2003

GILLIAN CLARK

When the journalist asked me what I felt about classics, I kind of shrugged my shoulders and said that it wasn't so clear [as the case of philosophy]. So I am happy to make my position clear since it has been widely represented. I am in favour of the study of classics.

This is a welcome reply by the Secretary of State for Education (Hansard, 6 February 2003) to reports that he had said he would not care if nobody ever studied classics again. Classicists sprang up in the House, in the press, on the Today programme (the redoubtable Peter Jones), and in his office (JACT Bulletin 123, pp. 6-7) to ensure that he now knows exactly why the study of classics continues. On 10 May 2003 Mr Clarke wrote to the Daily Telegraph, this time to counter reports that he was opposed to medieval studies:

I am not in any way opposed to medieval studies (or for that matter Latin). I support the spread and development of both classical and medieval studies.

Classicists, and their medievalist colleagues, will look forward to his continued support. Mr Clarke may have missed the impassioned reaction, in the autumn of 2002, to reports of the closure of Classics at Queen's University Belfast. This was especially to be regretted because schools in Northern Ireland have such a strong record in classical languages. The good news is that ancient history, Byzantine studies and classical tradition continue at Queen's. These days, university classicists are often located in departments, schools or institutes that do not carry the title 'classics': indeed, this has prompted a concern that HESA statistics may hide the true size of the subject community. Fortunately, we have accurate CUCD statistics: renewed thanks to Graham Shipley (Statistics Officer) and to all those who provide the information.

Three topics have been of special concern this year. First, RAE and the Roberts Review. CUCD consulted member departments in summer 2002 (as reported in Bulletin 31, p. 7) in the expectation that we would be asked to comment. The Roberts Review was eventually published at the end of May 2003, and the CUCD response to interested parties is as follows:

Council of University Classical Departments: response to Roberts Review of RAE This response rests on CUCD's consultation of member departments about RAE 2001 and on discussion of their views in CUCD Standing Committee and at Council (AGM) November 2002. It is a discursive response that includes comments on alternative forms of assessment and on the cross-cutting themes of the Roberts Review.

CUCD regards academic peer review, expensive though it is in academic time, as the only credible method of assessing the quality of research. Most research in our subject-area is returned to Panel 57, which in all RAEs to date has actually read the work submitted. This is not practicable for subjects (such as English or History) with many more submissions, but we regard it as the best method. We think that RAE guidelines should continue to be formulated in consultation with subject communities. We strongly oppose the suggestion that there should be fewer panels and larger groupings of subjects. This would mean loss of subject expertise, and we do not think it would improve the assessment of interdisciplinary work. Classics is itself an interdisciplinary subject, embracing language, literature, history, philosophy, material culture and visual arts, classical tradition and reception. Current RAE guidelines also allow for interdisciplinary work to be cross-referred at the request of universities or of panels.

RAE 5/6 already provides an opportunity for self-assessment: departments are asked to comment on their achievements, resources and aims. But self-assessment is not credible unless it is submitted to peer review. A rolling review programme, responsive to different subject-cultures, might be less disruptive than the national RAE, and could also allow a longer time-scale in appropriate subjects. We considered the possibility of combining teaching assessment with research assessment, but we do not see who could do it. Reviewers external to the subject would not be credible, and colleagues would not be willing, because of the potential damage to morale and to collegiality (as in Subject Review). Staff-student ratios, and average contact hours, could be included in the information on research management that is supplied to RAE panels.

Our respondents agreed that research culture should be taken into account in RAE ratings, but were divided on whether publications should be given more weight than research culture. Some respondents expressed concern that the assessment of research culture must be a mix of quantitative measures and impressionistic judgements including the rhetoric of RAE 5/6. All opposed quantitative assessment. Citation indices and bibliometrics are not widely available because they are not thought to indicate excellence. Quantitative measures often reflect levels of resource, or different funding needs. Thus the 'Golden Triangle' can attract and retain more graduate students because of library resources, numbers of academic staff, and graduate peer-groups. Larger groupings generate more conferences and seminars, and may find it easier to bid for and maintain funded research projects. Some areas of our subject, such as classical archaeology, need high levels of funding; others, such as philosophy and literary criticism, chiefly need time. But departments with relatively few 'indicators of esteem' may still produce research that is excellent in terms of scholarship, imaginative range, enhanced understanding, or new approaches.

Our subject is intensely research-active. No classical department is ranked below 3A; almost all colleagues are returned and a high proportion are in departments ranked 5 or 5*. But we do not think that ratings should be historical, because that would remove the incentive for departments to improve or maintain their rating. There is very strong feeling about the failure to fund the further improvement shown by the results of RAE 2001.

Sir Gareth Roberts, to the general relief of academics in the humanities, recommended expert review of research. Initial reports suggested that he would also recommend far fewer 'units of assessment', but that applies to the overview panels: the number of sub-panels with specific subject expertise is slightly increased. At the time of writing this report, it remains unclear whether all or any of the Roberts recommendations will be accepted, and if they are, how universities will interpret them. The precise funding consequences of RAE 2001 also remain unclear, although it is very clear that current funding policies do not acknowledge the quality that was affirmed by the peer reviewers. As the CUCD response (like many others) points out, research in the arts and humanities does not require a 'critical mass' concentrated in a few expensively equipped universities. Humanities research depends on conversation and interchange: collaborative projects are sometimes appropriate, but the individual scholar is not a lone scholar. But the question remains: is that research is to be funded through the block grant to universities, or through competitive funding bids?

This year's second main topic is the AHRB invitation to bid for ring-fenced doctoral studentships in endangered or emergent subject areas. Postgraduate funding has until now been awarded in response to applications from potential research students; competition, as we all know, is intense. This will continue to be the main mode of funding, but there is widespread concern, documented in recent AHRB and British Academy reviews, that some subject-areas may be seriously endangered by a shortage of graduate students and therefore of future colleagues. Standing Committee was not convinced that ring-fenced awards are the best way forward. I have passed on to AHRB our concern (shared with many other subjects) that doctoral students chiefly need more time to acquire and to consolidate the languages and core skills (such as epigraphy, numismatics, papyrology, palaeography) that they may not encounter before their MA. Three full proposals, each for a maximum of six studentships over three years, have been submitted in our field. All three asked for support from CUCD. Those involved know just how much work these proposals entailed, at a time of year when many colleagues are not available for consultation: we hope to hear of their success.

The third main topic is very closely related to the second: it is the vexed question of language levels. Many of our students have no opportunity to learn Latin or Greek before they come to university. Language teaching in schools has been undermined by the pressures of the national curriculum and the examination system. So that even students with good grades are wary of language options at university, until they realise that they want to continue their studies and that they will need the languages. So there are Master's students, and undergraduate students in the later years of their degree, who want to learn a language ab initio. It makes sense for such students to join an ab initio language class, with provision as needed for different forms of assessment, or for scaling down very high marks that might distort a degree result. But some of our member departments have reported that their universities are interpreting QAA/SCQF guidelines to mean that ab initio language classes are by definition at level 1 and cannot be taken by students at levels 2 or above. CUCD will pursue enquiries in the hope that this is not an intended consequence of the qualifications framework.

The Chair's report is a personal document, even when it reports the results of discussion on Standing Committee and among member departments, and I end on a personal note. Each academic year is busier than the last, but CUCD could not continue its work of supporting our subject without the time and effort put in by the elected and coopted members of Standing Committee and by the colleagues who raise questions and respond to consultations. Thanks to you all, and may CUCD continue to flourish.

Gillian Clark
University of Bristol
September 2003


CUCD Bulletin 32 (2003)
© Council of University Classical Departments 2003

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