An Embarrassment of Professors?

By Fleming, Andrew | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview

An Embarrassment of Professors?


Fleming, Andrew, Antiquity


The judgements shaping archaeology and every subject in British universities (see remarks in the Editorial above) are based on certain presumptions about how research and teaching can best be done. Some of these premisses are noted.

Recently, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of professors of archaeology in British universities. Now I wouldn't dream for a moment of suggesting that any of the appointees are unworthy of their elevation; but there must surely be an interesting explanation for the appearance of the London Bus Syndrome in such an unexpected quarter.

There is. It is called the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), it takes place in March, and it has concentrated the minds of university-based archaeologists throughout the UK. Once every four years, departments are graded according to 'research quality', and the grade awarded directly and indirectly determines an increasing proportion of their funding. Departments which got a five (the highest grade) last time are feeling nervous, and the fours and threes are desperate to do better. So there is a hunt for 'stars', for individuals with distinguished publication records. Money is no object. At least two departments which wanted to appoint two young lecturers have been told that they must have a professor instead. Departments are keen to reward their own stars, promoting them partly in order to stop them being lured away ('golden handcuffs'). It is said that Professor Scroggins, who has not been with the University of Megalopolis very long, is on the move again, and that the move will be engineered so that Megalopolis will still be able to 'count' his publications, most of which were written when he was still at Barchester (despite the changed names, this is a real case). As a taxpayer, I can only watch these methods of deciding the funding levels of our public institutions with stupefaction. As an archaeologist in a university department, I am more closely concerned. Archaeology departments, like others in British universities, are becoming more like football clubs. Soon, as the transfer deadline approaches, this frenzied activity will decline; but unless the goal-posts are moved yet again, it will start up again in a couple of years' time, ahead of the next RAE.

The theory is that since the taxpayer cannot afford to fund research in all university departments, it is necessary to pick out the better research departments and fund them accordingly; the others will then be funded mainly for teaching. The idea may sound fine, but it is actually very problematic. Not all research is equally expensive; it makes no sense, in terms of 'value for money', to approach English Literature or Archaeology as if their funding requirements are comparable to those of particle physics. Such equations overlook the cost-effectiveness of archaeological research, which is part of a complex system that includes the teaching of increasing numbers of undergraduates and postgraduates, and the integration of cognate disciplines and philosophies into new syntheses, at a time when archaeologists are still making major discoveries. University-based archaeology in the UK is a world leader; it is creative and dynamic, and needs more space and resources in relation to its academic neighbours.

The counting and measuring of the RAE makes a mockery of this. It seems that we are all the sum of our four 'best' pieces of writing. Much of the work submitted for judgement will have been published three or four years ago, based on ideas developed six or seven years ago. What kind of rational basis is this for deciding departments' funding needs? This is a recipe for an arthritic, chronically over-cautious academic system, packing some departments with middle-aged luminaries while talented young scholars hang around in temporary teaching fellowships designed to preserve research time for the stars. What is the future for younger scholars when, because of RAE pressures, unadvertised jobs are dished out, and posts advertised in one subject-area are filled in another? …

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