The Head of Research Policy
Bristol BS16 1QD.
Dear Dr Pilsbury,
I'm taking advantage of your assurance, at the Bristol colloquium yesterday, that you are always accessible to comments and suggestions on the RAE, and will always respond to them.
I'm sure it was as clear to you as to everyone else that the main hostility to the RAE, and resentment at the consequences of it, came from academics in the humanities. The scientists seemed quite satisfied with the system, and content with the corollary that major funding in the sciences will go increasingly to just a dozen or so universities. The social scientists had some reservations, but seemed happy enough on the whole. But there was a marked, and consistent, sense of serious discontent in all the contributions from the humanities. Dr Smith [John Smith, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Cambridge] was particularly explicit in his assertion that the entire culture of scholarship in the arts subjects was being debased, and though the other humanities speakers were a bit more diplomatic, they certainly didn't disagree with him.
What did you make of Dr Smith's vehemence? The irritation that was manifested when you and Mr Bekhradnia [Bahram Bekhradnia, Policy Director, HEFCE] defended the system as being the least bad option, and insisted on your consultations having resulted in appropriate adjustments, was because that didn't engage with the subject of the debate, namely the consequences of the RAE. It's not enough to say there's no serious alternative. We're all resigned to that. But all choices have consequences, and what we wanted to hear was that HEFCE understood the consequences and would do its best to address them. (You said you'd be 'long gone' after the next RAE. Lucky you: the rest of us have to go on living with it, and with the regime it has created.) The humanities are a large chunk of higher education, and it's clear that research and scholarship in those fields are not well served by a funding system which takes the 'science model' as the norm.
When Professor Fullbrook [Kate Fullbrook, Associate Dean, Faculty of Humanities, University of the West of England] asked what you would take back to HEFCE as a result of the debate, the laughter in the audience was because people didn't believe that you'd taken any of it seriously on board - an assumption no doubt confirmed by your answer that HEFCE will have to improve its public relations. (Subtext, 'your problems must be the result of a misconception'.) That is a gambit very familiar within university hierarchies: unhappiness among the academic community is taken as evidence not of flawed policies but of faded communication. However, I would like to take you at your word, and suggest a way in which your communications with your constituency can be improved.
Ultimately, the main problem with the RAE is that it necessarily dominates universities' strategic thinking. Each institution sets up its own machinery to play the system, and that machinery reflects the RAE itself in not taking account of the differential consequences as they affect the sciences, the social sciences and the humanities respectively. So the unsatisfactory aspect of your system is replicated at the next level in theirs.
What you said very clearly at the colloquium was that 'power resides with the UOA panels'. They know their own subject areas, and will operate in close consultation and collaboration with them; all that working academics have to do is to produce quality research that will be recognised as such by their peers in their own disciplines. Amen to that - but it is a message that has to be spelt out much more insistently and explicitly than it has been hitherto. As it is, university 'managers' set up elaborate systems, disproportionately expensive in time and energy, to maximise RAE results across the board, when in fact the only people who really know what is required in any given UOA are the academics who work in that discipline, and they should be allowed to get on with it.
If you can get that across, it will be a real service. As you heard repeatedly yesterday, academics in the humanities have their professional lives dominated by the RAE in variously unhealthy ways. If you can at least persuade their universities to get the management strategists off their backs, that will be one step towards defusing the resentment that you found aimed at you at the colloquium.
Dear Professor Wiseman,
Intellectual Consequences of the RAE
May I apologise for taking so long to respond to your letter of 25th March - I have been giving a series of presentations.
I think it is untrue to say that the RAE is based on a scientific model. It is based on a historic model of scholarship, in which ideas are placed in the public domain and the value of those ideas is assessed by the community at large. We have formalised this process for the purposes of informing the selective allocation of funding; we have not invented an entirely new and alien process.
I also think it is untrue to say that the Funding Councils, and you cite HEFCE in particular, have failed to acknowledge the intellectual consequences of the RAE. We are of course aware that the RAE has influenced thinking and behaviour in institutions and some of these changes are very positive. There are of course suggested negatives, a number of which detailed on one of my slides: discouraging interdisciplinary work, discouraging applied research, devaluing of teaching, encouraging short term perspectives, an explosion of publication, and inappropriate recruitment practices. The fact is however, that there is little evidence to support some of these assertions - such as the promotion of a significant transfer market and the inappropriate assessment of interdisciplinary work. Further, some of the other effects are due, at least in part, to a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the RAE - for instance, there is no reason inherent in the RAE for scholars to engage in, or benefit from, "salami slicing" of publications.
However, that does not mean we are complacent about the institutional and/or intellectual consequences of the RAE and, as I stated at the Conference, we are just about to embark on a fundamental review of the RAE that will examine all these issues in some detail, including the interrelationship between teaching and research.
I was rather taken aback by the audience's laughter precisely because I thought the issues being discussed were extremely serious and that we had evidenced a commitment to engage with them. I'm afraid I must correct your assertion that my answer was about the need to give a positive spin to HEFCE policies. We discussed at tea, and my recollection is that you agreed, that the consultation on draft criteria provided an opportunity for communities to engage with the process to ensure that the basis for assessment was appropriate for their discipline. It is essential that the Funding Councils should work harder to get this message across as you acknowledge in your penultimate paragraph.
Dear Dr Pilsbury,
Many thanks for your courteous reply to my letter. In such discussions there's always a danger of talking past each other, so let me assure you that I do accept what you say in your second and third paragraphs: the RAE is indeed not an entirely new and alien process, and HEFCE has indeed identified some of its consequences and is thinking about how to deal with them. I accept too what you said at the colloquium, that there is little statistical evidence to support the idea of a 'transfer market', even though that seems to go against the anecdotal evidence. But none of those points touches the main anxiety I was trying to express.
You dispute my view that the system takes the 'science model' as the norm, but you don't engage with the brute fact (as it seems to me) that the most widespread and bitterly expressed criticism of it comes from scholars in the humanities. I thought it was a very revealing moment at the colloquium when Mr Bekhradnia said dismissively, 'Oh yes, I know Sir Keith Thomas once brought out a book that had taken seventeen years, and it changed the world...', as if such works were so exceptional that no practical system could be expected to allow for them. A book like Religion and the Decline of Magic doesn't 'change the world', but it does make the sort of advance in a discipline that can't be achieved by a monograph written between one RAE and another, even with the extended time scale now allowed. And it is not unique, as Mr Bekhradnia implied: such books represent the best in the humanities' scholarly tradition, and the sense of betrayal that was articulated by Dr Smith (I notice you don't comment on his contribution to the debate) is because the RAE now makes it effectively impossible to embark on them.
You say 'there is no reason inherent in the RAE for scholars to engage in, or benefit from, "salami slicing" of publications' - but surely that's a little disingenuous? Universities play the system, and when the structure of the system isn't a perfect match for the activity it is meant to reflect (as I think is demonstrably the case in the humanities), they naturally put pressure on their research active staff to be research active in the way the system wants, and not the way their own instincts may be telling them to work.
The problem is that it matters so much. It may well be the case that the panel in my subject area would judge a submission consisting of just one big book, and nothing else, as highly as one consisting of four articles. But that's a gamble that no university management could allow someone like me to take. (Besides, what if the big book isn't ready in time?) It's that sort of dilemma that creative people in the humanities have to live with all the time, and it's not surprising if they are resentful about a funding system that causes their institutions to use them like battery hens.
I don't doubt HEFCE's good faith in trying to adjust and improve the system through consultation. The problem in the humanities is that the mismatch can't really be addressed by easy adjustments. But it would be a useful first step if HEFCE were prepared to recognise that the humanities are sui generis, and that the real concerns of scholars in the humanities require more attention than just an ironical throw away line about books that change the world.
Dear Professor Wiseman,
Research Assessment Exercise
We corresponded previously on whether the humanities is different to other disciplines and therefore requires a fundamentally different approach to funding. For the reason I outlined before I have to say that we do not see the RAE as an inappropriate mechanism by which to determine the selective allocation of funding across all disciplines.
However, we are not complacent about the appropriateness of the RAE and will soon begin a fundamental review of the exercise looking at existing approaches in different countries and other potential approaches.
It may surprise you to know that the humanities community is no more vociferous about the RAE than scientists, engineers or anyone else. Many people feel passionate about the RAE, and that is absolutely right and proper, it is a sign of the vitality of UK research that we all want to get the approach to funding right. However, I do not equate emotion with antipathy; the dual support system provides immense advantages which are recognised by many - and I believe evidenced by the fact that the UK research base consistently punches above its weight and the quality of UK scholarship is acknowledged around the world.
On the specific point which you mention, panels are perfectly able to award high ratings where scholars are engaged in work which does not produce an immediate output. They must be clear, of course, about the basis on which these ratings are awarded. I would note simply that:
a) ratings relate to submissions not to individuals
b) the textual commentaries are integral to the assessment process and provide sufficient scope for this type of work to be recorded and rewarded.
Dear Dr Pilsbury,
Thank you for your letter of 21 April. I'm afraid we are indeed talking past each other (the danger I referred to in my letter of 12 April), since your answer to my anxieties seems to be just a repetition of your previous position, and too bland, if I may say so, to be much help.
You say in your third paragraph that 'many people [not just in the humanities] feel passionate about the RAE', but that you 'do not equate emotion with antipathy'. That does rather miss the point I was making, that in the humanities the antipathy is explicit, as you had every opportunity of seeing at the Bristol colloquium. May I ask you yet again what you made of Dr Smith's contribution on that occasion? I'm not trying to be difficult; I genuinely want to know what HEFCE's reaction is to that level of bitterness and hostility.
You defend the dual support system, which I never attacked, on the evidence that 'the UK research base consistently punches above its weight, and the quality of UK scholarship is acknowledged around the world'. That is indeed the case: but the question is whether it will remain so, in the humanities, under the conditions of scholarship that the RAE has brought about. When the people who are best placed to judge - i.e. scholars in the humanities themselves - are not confident that it will, then I think HEFCE ought to be listening hard to what they say.
My problem, both at the colloquium and in this correspondence, has been a persistent sense that HEFCE only wants to listen to comments that can be easily addressed, and won't face really serious criticism. I don't expect you to agree with that, but I have to say that so far you haven't given me any reason to suppose it's untrue.
Dear Professor Wiseman
Research Assessment Exercise
Apologies for taking so long to respond to your letter, I have been unwell for a while.
I seem not to be providing the answers you want, and you state that I repeat my position. I can only say that I am sorry you consider my responses to them insufficient, they are a genuine attempt to engage with the issues you raise. I suspect you will find my reply again repeats these views - but they are still my views - based on evidence available to HEFCE. If we correspond again, I think it is likely that I will repeat them yet again.
It is still my view that the RAE is not an inappropriate mechanism to support the selective allocation of funding - across all disciplines. We have run a series of wide ranging and open consultation exercises and the responses have provided overwhelming support for the RAE as a mechanism to support the selective allocation of our block grant.
I can only state, again, that we are not complacent about its appropriateness and me suggested unintended effects within institutions, and will have begun a fundamental review of HEFCE research policy and funding.
You ask me again what I think of the views expressed at the meeting, to which I can only say again that members of the humanities community are no more passionate about the RAE than scientists, engineers or anyone else. The evidence here is my own experience as I go round the country taking to all disciplines, drawing on their views in order to develop the most appropriate policies.
Head of Research Policy
CUCD Bulletin 28 (1999)
© T.P. Wiseman/HEFCE 1999