Reflections of an Ex-Assessor

By Austin, David | Antiquity, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Reflections of an Ex-Assessor


Austin, David, Antiquity


The business of the RAE has gone around and around and we are m danger of endless repetition. What it all boils down to, I suspect, is a difference of opinion between those who think management and government is about difficult decisions made easier by secrecy and those who think that if people's lives and livelihoods are affected then even difficult decisions should be taken openly and according to criteria all can see and understand, if not agree with. Expressed in this way, this is all part of the greater debate on open government which the present administration avowedly supports, but congenitally denies. I am on the side of difficult openness and against the natural instinct of establishments to protect their own and thereby shelter the favoured second-rate.

I do not propose to waste space here by rehearsing that wider argument any further; in my experience little gets achieved but a futile shouting-match at the end of which the great and the good quietly retire behind their locked doors. What I want to address are a few matters which directly affect archaeology itself and its general health in the British Higher Education system. I do this, not as a head of department, but in my own right as a combatant over the years.

Teaching assessment and research assessment

At the moment, and as a result of a decade and a half of radical disturbance, we are now subject to more work and more scrutiny than ever before. When I reluctantly became an academic 20 years ago, I was expected to teach at a staff: student ratio of 1:8; I now teach in our department at Lampeter at close to 1:22. This level allows us (just) to keep our teaching programmes adequately resourced and our research going. We could not seriously function on anything less. At the same time our management of resources is kept under constant audit and tight bottom-line control; our teaching has just (last December) been subjected to an external Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) by the Welsh Higher Education Funding Council; and we have, in the last few weeks, been completing our RAE forms. Added to all this, archaeology as a university-based discipline has been expanding and diversifying in such a way that it has become a much larger and more mature academic enterprise than it was when I began back in the mid 1970s.

Like many in all sectors of education, I have come to feel very equivocal about all this change. Like most I have hated it, but I learnt to get on with it, despite the enormous difficulties and tensions it caused. Now I have come to believe that some of it was necessary and with modification should be kept. I am not on the Blair wing of the Labour Party for nothing!

Take the TQA, for example; we were the first department of archaeology to face this. Before it all happened I was very defensive, and, I suppose, deeply suspicious and cynical. What could they find out in four days and what was the point? Well, I was agreeably surprised, and for reasons that are worth rehearsing because they reflect directly on the present conduct of the RAE.

First of all, they (the assessors) came to us and looked at everything we cared to show them, and they talked to anybody who cared to say anything to them.

Second, they were trained to do the job.

Third, they were managed by a professional educationalist who rehearsed the issues and procedures to them (and us) before, during and after the process, in a detached and unbiased way, with proper and appropriate documentation at the right moments.

Fourth, when they identified difficulties and problems, anything in fact with a potential negative edge to it, they asked us about it face to face.

And, fifth, when they delivered their opinion and judgement they looked me in the eye, explained it and then helped with a constructive critique of our procedures and practices designed to help us improve our teaching.

Contrast that assessment with the RAE - where we reduce our diverse and rich research practices and conclusions to a narrow pro-forma and send it off into the void, never allowed to defend it or explain it further. …

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