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Gordon and the revenge of the Golden Triangle

The RAE’s revolutionary support for quality over bloodline is under fire from the elitists, says James Mills

So the revolution is dead, and the counterrevolution is upon us. The research assessment exercise was the most radical force to reshape British universities since the 1960s and, as such, it was resented and feared by many. But look what it achieved.

In the first place, it began to shift power across the sector, so that the old Golden Triangle was forced to share state resources. The last RAE showed 20 universities with 20 or more 5 or 5* departments, and 11 with more than 75 per cent of their staff working in 5 or 5* departments. The exercise gave regional universities, and those in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, the opportunity to show their strengths and, ultimately, to muscle in on the cosy relationships between the golden boys and their alumni in Government.

Crucially, it did not simply provide a means for the established universities to lay claim to greater recognition and investment. Indeed, it might still bring a smile to the face to recall the triumph of the history department at Oxford Brookes University in gaining a higher rating than did its haughty neighbour, but the story is illustrative of a wider truth; that a meritocracy briefly threatened to develop in academe. At the last RAE almost 50 departments at post-1992 universities were awarded grades 5* or 5, compared with just ten in 1996. The RAE was a pot of gold that provided both the means and the encouragement to invest, and the story of what it could achieve is most clearly told at the new universities.

But the backlash began, and the forces of counterrevolution are already in full swing. This was evident when the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s grant to universities for 2003-04 allocated 75 per cent of an extra £20 million to just five universities on the grounds that they were the "best" research units. Sir Richard Sykes, of Hefce’s board, flew in the face of the RAE evidence when he told the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee that he could identify only four or five universities with a critical mass of world-class research. Of course these were the golden boys. The committee chair rightly dubbed Sykes the Sheriff of Nottingham, as it was clear that "four or five institutions having the major share of the resources for research means somebody else getting less".

Gordon Brown, for his part, appears less as an historic scoundrel and more as a sinister Dr Who villain as he plans to send in his "metrics" to kill off the new generation. The metrics-based system announced in his Budget will simply be a crude measure of existing concentrations of expertise, thereby funnelling money straight to those places that have the historic head start. In contrast, institutions that have put in motion an upward trajectory towards excellence will be cut out.

The RAE was not just about the battle of the institutions. It reinvigorated individual universities after the torpor of the 1970s and a clattering in the 1980s. Here was the inducement to invest in those with ambition and energy, and to unmask the idle and the indolent. Many of us will recall the department grandee whose sole achievement was a long-distant association with some august professor or golden university. He — and it was usually a male — would hold positions of power, condescend to those around him and stifle initiative simply on the basis of a "reputation". The RAE exposed such frauds by rewarding only those who produced.

It is an irony that at the same time as the unions are asking us to protest that our earnings have shrunk in comparison with other professions, they are celebrating the demise of the performance indicator, a concept now applied to all other public sector employees from doctors to teachers. The RAE is one of the few measures that we can turn to demonstrate our productivity.

The RAE distributed new money across the country, recognising and rewarding existing researchers, and a flood of fresh talent rejuvenated the sector from below. Never before had the new lecturer received so much encouragement to engage in research, to pursue grants and to organise conferences.

Inevitably, some observed that some of the new work was of questionable quality, and that there were too many journal articles to read. But one need only browse through many of the dusty volumes of journals that predate the 1990s to realise that low volume does not always ensure high quality. Rarely have a hundred flowers bloomed more vividly than over the decade since the RAE.

James Mills is director of the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare, a research collaboration between Strathclyde and Glasgow Caledonian universities.

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