Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Research Assessment Exercise

I belong to a group called the Socio-Legal Studies Association in the UK. We hold a yearly conference, run a newsletter, and other activities including the SLSA website. Today we had an executive committee meeting and among our topics was the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). This is an interesting if vexing feature of English academic life in that every five years or so, we evaluate everyone's research and grade it. So far, so good, but we take it one step further: your grade determines how much money your department will receive for research.

Up to now the grading has been on 1 to 5 scale (5 the best). It's changing but in ways we are not sure of. When I joined my law school it was with the brief of raising its research profile. My school had focussed on teaching at the expense of research. But research is the key to building a reputation and becoming a good school. Many of my colleagues didn't want to do research. Gradually over time we were able to hire good researchers and those who didn't research became mainly assigned to teaching only. By dividing the school into three sections--professional legal studies, ie, vocational; undergraduate; and postgraduate--we were able to assign the researchers to the postgraduate section where their teaching was concentrated on masters and PhD students, which gave ample time for research. In some ways it was harsh, but it was really the only way that we could push the research agenda.

Our first real effort in the RAE came in 1996. Now as with most activities like this, there is a game element and how one plays that game affects the outcome. In 1996 we were naive. We submitted too many active researchers whose work wasn't good enough. We were graded 2. That was bad. The worst part was that a 2 grade meant no money was forthcoming. It meant our research was considered only nationally ranked. Our university was upset at the grade as well, and it decided that it would not give us any funding for research! For the next five years any funding would have to be generated by ourselves.

To learn the game we asked an expert committee of external law academics to come in and examine us and our research. They were hard saying that our research was spread too thin or we had focussed on research reports instead of finished journal articles. They also criticised the university for cutting off our research funding. Unfortunately the university ignored that part.

We honed our strategy. We used research grants to help younger colleagues and graduate students. Whenever the opportunity to hire a new academic occurred, I made sure I sat on the hiring committee. Too often committee members could be won over by appearances instead of concentrating on the research track record of the candidates. My task was to argue for the best researcher. Others would say "We need a teacher first..." We had too many teachers and not enough researchers. From 1996 to 2001, the date of the next RAE, we hired a group of younger, more radical research types. All basically did sociolegal research, which most law schools tended to ignore in favour of black letter law. We were able to submit a tightly focussed research team with good outputs and a healthy number of research grants. This time we scored a 5! That is, our research was international in stature.

We were shocked but were we pleased. Our law school made the biggest jump of any law school in the rankings. I wish the university had been as enthusiastic. In fact I think they were discomfited by our success. They hadn't backed us and therefore couldn't take the credit--it was all ours. While every other university put their RAE grades on their websites in a matter of hours, Westminster took almost three weeks to put theirs up.

The results have been good. More research grants come our way, better graduate students apply, and better candidates consider applying for faculty positions.

The next RAE is in 2008 and this time the rules are changing... A new grading system is being introduced. This time it will be 4* to 1*. No one knows how it will work. All we have to go on is how we handled it before. For a small research group like ours it is difficult to think of alternative strategies. We still insist on good publications in good journals, etc. But it looks as if the rules of the game are being altered to raise the stakes. 4*, 3*, 2* are now international. In the old 1 to 5, only 4 and 5 were international. Now it seems that 4* will have such a high barrier that only say 10% will be able to achieve it. Perhaps it is to prevent grade inflation, but I think it has a financial incentive which is to confine research funding to fewer schools. This could seriously hurt our law school.

Our university hasn't come to terms with the changes and although we should be hiring one or two new faculty and enrolling new grad students, it won't release the funds. We will do well despite them, but how well?
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