The insanity of RAE

Those happy souls who live in the real world will not know that last Thursday saw the culmination of nonsense on stilts in the British university world — the release of the latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) results. In a nutshell, RAE is the extension of ‘targets’ and bean-counting to the world of ideas, and it’s a crazy system. In one major academic department I know, the most creative and original member of the department was excluded from the RAE by his colleagues because his pathbreaking work “didn’t fit the narrative” — i.e. the story being carefully crafted to impress the bean counters.

The mainstream media know nothing of this, however, so it’s really nice to see my Observer collleague, Simon Caulkin, turning his withering fire on it. He examines the consequences for universities of having to play the ‘targets’ game.

The first and most obvious of these is colossal bureaucracy. Government blithely assumes that management is weightless; but the direct cost of writing detailed specifications and special software, and assembling 1,100 panellists to scrutinise submissions from 50,000 individuals in 2,500 submissions, high as it already is, is dwarfed by the indirect ones – in particular, the huge and ongoing management overheads in the universities themselves. As with any target exercise, the RAE has developed into a costly arms race between the participants, who quickly figure out how to work the rules to their advantage, and regulators trying to plug the loopholes by adjusting and elaborating them.

The result is an RAE rulebook of staggering complexity on one side and, on the other, the generation of an army of university managers, consultants and PR spinners whose de facto purpose is not to teach, nor make intellectual discoveries, but to manage RAE scores. As in previous assessments, a lively transfer market in prolific researchers developed before the submission cut-off date at the end of 2007, while, under the urging of their managers, many university departments have been drafting and redrafting their submissions for the past three years.