Well RCUK me, I’ll be a son of a REF!

“… if you design a Soviet-style planning system, you will get tractors.”

It takes a bit of nerve to criticise the march towards totalitarianism in universities, especially if you work at Warwick, but Andrew Oswald, professor of Economics at that Stalinist institution, follows Professor Docherty in his attack on the Soviet model of academic life and the use of the REF to control the proles. A few years ago Oswald introduced the unfashionable idea of human happiness into the discipline of Economics, without which the rest he believes superfluous. That attracted indifference and hostility then. Now the REF would throw it to the ground and trample all over it. Oswald calls for “risk, failure, iconoclasm, more failure, genius, turbulence, yet more failure, eccentricity and relentlessly weird thinking.” In other words, universities should get back to doing what they always used to do.

A second criticism of the ref comes from Lancaster’s Professor Derek Sayers. Sayers took the unusual step of appealing against his inclusion in the REF at Lancaster in protest at the arbitrary decisions to exclude other colleagues. Like Oswald he points out the inadequacy of judgements on research quality, the immense cost, and the personal subjectivity of panel members. He prefers the use of metrics such as journal impact factors and citation numbers; these would certainly be cheaper although are really a no better way to assess the quality of research. Where the original RAE was used to apportion grant money, however unfairly, the current REF no longer fulfils that function; it is a tool for “performance management”, a barely disguised euphemism for sacking people.

Judging the quality of academic research on short term measures or contemporary opinions has always been tricky, let alone using such judgements to determine an academic’s future career. Management enthusiasts for the REF should study the history of 1930s Germany, particularly the behaviour of the Nobel physicist and anti-Semite Lenard, who judged Einstein’s theories, notably the theory of relativity, to be fallacious — the “Jewish Fraud” — and went on to promote “Aryan physics” for the Nazi regime. Modern academic prejudices are unlikely to be so extreme or overt, but the notion of “REFable research” is an uncomfortable echo of the arbitrary injustices of the past.

Here at Kingston the REF is approached with enthusiasm by management, and the threat of performance management is already clear. A few years ago a senior Kingston academic, noted for his originality and unorthodoxy, expressed the view that we are entering an age of barbarism. He was forced into retirement a while ago.

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