Rachel Johnson

Publish or be damned

If dons don't churn out books and articles – whether they want to or not – they will lose funding. Rachel Johnson wonders whether that's what education is about

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If dons don't churn out books and articles – whether they want to or not – they will lose funding. Rachel Johnson wonders whether that's what education is about

Our rendezvous is the new laptop-and-latte bar on the first floor of Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford. The history don is a few minutes late and this gives me time to reread an extraordinary document, which reveals that he (and thousands like him all over the country) is being subjected to a production quota for published work that makes Stalin's five-year plans look positively market-driven.

The document, circulated to 'postholders' in the faculty of Modern History, concerns the nationwide process called the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The exercise, based on the premise that those in receipt of public money must be quality-controlled, audited and assessed on a continuous basis, determines the allocation of dosh to departments. The higher the assessed score (there are seven grades, from 0 to 5*) the more dosh the dons get, and the gradings are based almost entirely on how much 'research' (i.e., written work) the dons are doing.

This year, the don tells me as background, his history department 'lost its star'. This is not a case of a reasonably bright child getting only an A rather than an A* in Biology GCSE. The loss of the star resulted in the deduction of a full £1 million from the faculty's government grant.

That was bad enough, but donnish pride took a further kicking when the history department at Oxford Brookes University (aka the poly) was given a higher rating than the one at the university, where titans have numbered Richard Cobb, Richard Southern and Eric Hobsbawm among them. The former poly's history department was graded 5* to the university's 5. This was not merely a shattering blow to prestige, but also catastrophic financially (the funding-council grant that comes per capita does not cover undergraduate teaching, which is almost entirely subsidised by the research grant, which goes up or down according to a department's RAE grading).

In response, Christopher Haigh, a Christ Church history don, came up with the plan I have in front of me; a plan that, as I said, would do credit to Uncle Joe himself.

'The scheme aims to ensure that the faculty ensures the highest grading in the next RAE, planned for 2008. It asks every postholder to formulate a research and publication plan for the cycle,' it says, followed by jargon about research clusters ...lead reviewers ...timescales ...procedural difficulties ...etc. Then the killer blow: 'The purpose of the review meeting is to establish a plan for how the minimum target (one article per year or one book per RAE cycle) will be achieved.'

Now in case I've lost you, let me put this in plain English. Unless academics crack out at least one major article per year in a peer-reviewed journal, or one cutting-edge new book per assessment cycle, it is hello, Gulag.

Non-productive dons may be told that they are 'not a serious academic', as Dr Pete Dorey, a senior lecturer in politics at Cardiff, was last year. Their departments will lose money, and they could lose their jobs – even though the reason their production output is low is that their teaching load is high.

'Research is now an obsession in universities, and the only real criterion of appointment or promotion,' says Dr Dorey. 'It does not matter how badly you teach, or whether you do any teaching at all, as long as you keep churning out ever more books, articles and conference papers.'

To recap: at a time when the government is increasing hugely the numbers of students entering higher education (OK, partly now by allowing catering colleges to call themselves universities, but still) and asking parents to pay for their tuition, those responsible for teaching them are being judged not by their teaching skills but by what they have managed to get between hard covers or into learned journals.

'The remit is to increase research output vis-