The Benefits of Assessment, and Some Risks

By Cunliffe, Barry | Antiquity, June 1996 | Go to article overview

The Benefits of Assessment, and Some Risks


Cunliffe, Barry, Antiquity


In 1989, as a response to government directives, the then Universities Funding Council (now the Higher Education Funding Council for England - HEFCE) instituted a Research Assessment Exercise. Each subject area in each university was assessed by a panel of experts and the quality of its 'research' was graded, in the most recent exercise, in 1992, on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the top. HEFCE then used this quality rating together with the number of 'research-active staff' entered for each academic unit as the absolute factors from which the grant for research for the individual university department was calculated.

After recovering from its initial stunned disbelief, the effect on the university world was electrifying. Applications for research grants shot up, forests had to be cut to deal with the exponential growth in the volume of publications and a surprising number of academics found themselves in a premature and happy retirement, which differed little from their previous working lives. In short, we had been introduced to the novel concept of productivity.

I have no wish to be misunderstood as an apologist for Thatcherism, but I am bound to say that the short sharp shock had an immediate beneficial impact: while it may have killed off some, it galvanized others. Old excavation archives were dragged out from beneath beds, dusted off and prepared for publication; new research initiatives, properly costed and programmed, were set up, and university administrations suddenly discovered new sources of money to encourage research-active staff to become even more active. It was like a breath of fresh air gusting through the venerable woodwork.

But let us pause for a moment to consider what is at stake. At Oxford one large arts department was graded 4. Had it gained the expected 5 the University would have been [pounds]600,000 per annum better off. One colleague, appalled at the distorting effect which the exercise was having on academic life, suggested that the University might refuse to take part in the next round. Had it agreed to do so it would have stood to lose [pounds]50 million. In other words, in this game, the stakes are high. As a result universities have been studying the rules with unusual attention to detail, and it is rumoured that Departments of Mathematics have been developing software packages to compute options and probabilities. …

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The Benefits of Assessment, and Some Risks
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