From the perspective of the UK universities, the outcome of the Research Assessment Exercise is significant in two different ways. First, the RAE has perhaps the greatest impact on reputation of all metrics used to compile league tables; there is evidence that event student choices are heavily influenced by them. Secondly, they help to determine state funding (though the precise impact of these latest results on money is not yet known). In past RAEs there has been some conflict between these two factors, as institutions struggled to work out how best to maximise both money and reputation in the decisions about how many staff to enter: if you entered more staff and scored well, the financial benefits were highest – but if the gamble failed and you scored badly, the negative impact on reputation could be immense. It was all essentially a gamble.
In previous RAE outcomes, the exercise tended also to reinforce the – formally abolished but still alive and kicking – binary divide between ‘old’ universities and ‘new’ ones (the former polytechnics). This appears to have been undermined by the 2008 RAE results. The lowest place ‘old’ university appears to be the University of Wales at Lampeter, at No 83. The highest placed ‘new’ university is the University of Hertforshire, at No 58. Between these two there is a mix between the old and the new. So while all universities above 58 are old universities, and all below 83 are new ones or various specialist institutions, the boundary has become more fluid. And in some subject areas this fluidity is more pronounced, with new universities reaching the top ranks in some areas. In Ireland of course it is different anyway, with the two ‘new’ universities (in chronological terms), DCU and the University of Limerick, either performing to the same standard as the older ones in research, or sometimes out-performing them.
So what do we make of all this? Are such exercises useful? I have no direct experience of the preparations for the UK’s 2008 RAE, but I was heavily involved in managing subject units for the University of Hull (which in the whole has not done well in 2008) for the previous two RAEs. On the positive side, I found that the RAE had driven home in the academic community the importance of research performance as a way of building up an international reputation – so vital for any national university sector that wants to compete in quality internationally. On the negative side, the focus of the earlier RAE cycles was to combat research non-performance amongst academics, and the result of this tended to be heavy-handed methods to compel performance on the part of staff who, even when they did produce output, were never going to set the world on fire. A lot of very mediocre published output resulted, and arguably truly excellent staff were neglected.
I believe it is right to assess research, and I suspect that we shall be moving in that direction in Ireland. But I also think we should learn from the UK’s RAE and ensure that we avoid the mistakes, and the extraordinary bureaucracy, that accompanied the earlier cycles. If we can do that, we may be able to develop our own system in a way that genuinely adds transparency to the system.