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Thursday, 18 December 2014

The State We're In, Part 3.a: Listmania

So.  The results of the REF (Research Excellence Framework for non-academics, or non-UK academics or UK academics that have been hiding in a cave for eight years) are in (or out, depending on your preferred idiom).  Consult the lists to your heart’s desire.  They will be spun one way or another, stressing one performance index over another, on every university website across the country for months to come.  This seems as good a time as any to resume my thoughts on ‘The State We’re In’ (Part 1; Part 2; plus search for the 'State we're in' label for other scattered interim thoughts on various issues)

Well, there’s (I suppose) good news, bad news and (actual) good news.

First the (I suppose) good news.  My department came 2nd out of the 83 history departments in the exercise.  Yay, woo!  And actually this is in some important ways good news.  It is good news because some of my colleagues, notably our chair of the research committee and our head of department put in very long hours of tedious work, not always helped enormously by somewhat thuggish ‘powers that be’ higher up in the university, and it is very good news that that hard work gets some sort of serious recognition.  It is also good news in that it represents in some ways the culmination of a process that has been under way for ten years and in which I think I have played a significant part, of turning the department from one that had for decades had no ambition (other than to be some sort of Oxford feeder college) and had more or less institutionalised mediocrity, into a serious player in historical research in the UK.  This provides some reward to all the people who have contributed to that.  It is also good news because we are a very good history department.  I have some very good and interesting colleagues, especially at the younger end, doing good work in new areas.  It is good to have some sort of public indication of that fact; it is good to get some reward for the hard research work we have all put in.  It is, furthermore, good news to see some departments who are somehow supposed to be ipso facto the best in the country slither down to something approximating their actual intellectual worth, though only because it might (though actually it won’t) make them think twice before assuming that anyone graduating from or working at another university is somehow some kind of lesser intellect, and about instilling that misplaced sense of intellectual superiority in their students.  It might make someone in the general non-academic world realise that there is a disjuncture between privilege and prestige on the one hand and merit on the other.  It might even make prospective students (graduate and undergraduate) realise that going to those gilded places will not necessarily get them the best tuition, or expose them to the best historical minds. 

It is also, and I think this is very important, good news – indeed an excellent outcome – given the generally humane way in which my department (and our university management on the whole) have managed the whole REF business, compared with horror stories from elsewhere.  There have been no threats or other bullying strategies, and I hope that perhaps university management culture might make a note of this.  Sadly that wasn’t the case in the institution which produced the top placed history department, which drove at least one fine historian out of the profession altogether.

[Personally – and I take no pride in this but I have to be honest here – I also take some unedifying satisfaction in seeing departments that drove me out through bullying, or which have serially considered me to be beneath them, or which contain other people who have actively hindered my career, come out many places lower than the department where I work. This, the 'ha, fuck you then' response, is the natural response; it is the response encouraged by the system; it is the wrong response.]

But (the Bad News) this all comes at a cost. 

I am happy for my colleagues that they have got a serious reward for their hard work. I am happy that we have serious recognition as a good history department.  Don’t get me wrong about any of that.  

But I am very wary indeed of the bragging that might ensue, wary of suggesting that this means we really are better than (almost) anyone else, even contingently, temporarily, even taking (as I said in part 1) the exercise to be a sort of FA Cup contest, as though historical scholarship were like a race or FA Cup contest where one side definitively could be better than another.  I am wary of suggesting that my colleagues in other departments might be worse than us on this basis.  The risk of suggesting the above is serious and inherent in the league table culture.  We must work hard to counter it (though we won’t for the reasons I set out in Part 1)

Then, where is the real reward?  When the REF (or RAE as it was then) started, the point of the exercise was to divvy up the money the government gave out to universities to fund research.  Now of course, the government (and indeed the last Labour government – let’s be clear) has basically cut that to more or less zero.  So where do the rewards lie for all the hard work put in by chairs of department, chairs of research committees, and the ordinary rank and file researchers? The reward is located first and foremost in university bragging rights (‘we did better than you, ha ha ha’ [see italicised paragraph above!]), league table positions and so on.  This is good news for Vice Chancellors looking for an excuse to increase their pay packet yet further (while putting a brake on that of all the people who did the hard work) but not so much for the rest.  Why?  Because now there is precious little government funding so universities have to find other means of finding money.  And those means put them all in competition with each other.  To get funding we have to attract students, in a zero-sum game, and the league tables’ only value is in that game.  Or we have to get grants (in a situation that has led to at least one suicide in recent months), in a climate where grant income counts for more than actual research value.  All this ends (well, it ended some Time ago) the situation which ought to exist, where academics see themselves as collaborative, cooperative, fellow seekers after knowledge rather than members of competing cells.  Second the participation, the general gloating and publicity all strengthens the whole dynamic that I discussed in Parts 1 and 2, which produces the situation where any government can get the HE sector to dance to any tune: that, in other words, produces the state we are in.  This is all a high price to pay.  It is bad news.  I feel that someone in a department that (deservedly) did well in the exercise and who has put in good submissions in the last two exercises is best placed to make that criticism.

The other bad news is that proportionately far less goes on recognising actual quality research than it used to.  On the one hand part of the submission in terms of research environment concerns research income (see above).  But research income is not a valid recognition of research quality.  For one thing it is what comes out of a project that should count, not the amount of money that went in (however much the latter delights university accountants).  Secondly, what gets the money very often constitutes intellectually pretty lame projects, listing things and putting them on line.  On the other hand, a large part goes on ‘Impact’ – the many drawbacks with which have been pointed out over and over (not least by science departments, who have done best by the system and thus are best placed to make the critique) and hardly need repeating.  As far as history is concerned though, one additional problem is that the system provides little benefit to those who do not work on British or modern (or preferably modern British) history.

A third piece of bad news concerns the numbers themselves, which are entirely subjective judgements made by small panels, not always of the most respected or research productive academics within fields.  Some would say that the data are not robust.  More to the point, the fact that the numbers can be arranged sequentially is highly misleading.  Look at the history list and you will see that Lancaster University comes in twenty-three places below my department.  “Woo”, you might say, “the Lancaster historians must be loads worse than those at Poppleton.”  But look again at the evidence (and essentially to be a historian is to master the art of looking again).  If you count the GPA of Birmingham (in 1st place) as 100%, then Lancaster came in with 94%, whereas we got 99.6%.  That is a pretty fine difference for twenty-three places in the league (or visually, on the page or computer screen, a big drop of the eye).  Indeed by the same reckoning, the history department that came in thirtieth was still scoring near enough 91%.  So all these league tables, all this listmania, have a seriously misleading effect, in addition to all the other detrimental effects the league table culture has on higher education, scholarship and research.  Yet, those big visual drops of the eye (rather than the actual numbers) are what will put some people's jobs under pressure.

But here I want to shift tack again and spin this a slightly different way to end on what I think is some (actual) good news.  One bit of good news is that the table does at least shake things up a bit and suggest that the many good universities of the UK are all really pretty similar – that it is not a case of Oxbridge and a couple of others versus the rest of the pre-‘92s and then all of them against the post-‘92s.  What I would hope is that this shaking up might make research students apply to the university where the scholar best –placed to supervise them is working, rather than according to established institutional prestige.


More importantly than that, using the criteria mentioned above, even the bottom-placed history department scored 58% compared with the top.  The departments at the bottom of the top 51 were scoring 85%.  What I would like to suggest this means, and what I would like to suggest would be the best, the most humane, conclusion that the British historical profession ought to take away from the REF league table is that historians working in UKHE – across the board, from the top to the bottom of the list are producing significant amounts of good work.  That is actual good news and I want to end on this point, for now.  This is what as a profession we should be proud of, not institutional bragging rights.  Or, as Young Mr Grace used to say, “you’ve all done very well.”