Nick Cohen\’s sorta right here but he\’s missing the elephant:
Few dispute that academia needs reforming. Britain has a university system in which the last measure the government uses to judge the quality of academics is their ability to teach. Instead, tortuous bureaucracies assess the merits of the research produced by every department in all the 200 universities. On their ruling rests the disposal of £5bn of public money.
The 2008 fight for loot is under way. Luckless workers at a Bristol warehouse are sending 200,000 scholarly books and papers to the 1,000 or so professors who adjudicate on 70 panels like the judges of beauty contests.
In the inaugural issue of the new magazine Standpoint, Jonathan Bate of Warwick University despairs of the absurdity of the enterprise. He explains that panels filled with professors of foreign languages have been more generous in rating the work of their peers than professors of English. Officially, our universities are now world leaders in the study of French literature but awful at studying English literature. What\’s really happened, says Bate, is that while other professors of literature covered each other\’s backs and looked after each other\’s departments \’the Eng lit lot couldn\’t resist biting each other\’s backs\’ even if it meant their subject lost money.
His larger point is that universities should be judged by how they teach, not by the research they put out. And yes, there\’s a great deal of truth to that. Churning out the 357 th rehash of a review of French Symbolist poetry does indeed loom larger in the decisions of funding than the undergraduate course which actually teaches the students something useful (for any and every meaning of the word useful, from the utilitarian "does it help them get a job" to the non-such "does it expand their minds or enrich their lives").
On the more specific point of how research is measured and described above there\’s one major change that really ought to be made: stop the central funding of it. A number of ways for this to be achieved of course: we could simply ask students to pay the full costs of their education (with whatever subsidy of the poor we desire) and then let the universities get on with it. We could give each university an endowment and let them get on with it. We could pay from central funds simply a per capita fee….
But all of those come up against something of a difficult political problem. The argument in favour of any central subsidy for research is that it is a public good: non-rivalrous and non-excludable, so the socially optimal amount of it will not be produced under a free market system. Thus we do indeed need to have taxpayer subsidy. We can indeed place the education of students on a market basis (although there\’s also a weaker version of this public good argument there as well, but not one that I think is important enough to stop us making a one time subsidy like the endowments and then letting the market work) but how could we with research?
It\’s a toughie and I don\’t have any glib answers: other than the point that the current method simply ain\’t the way to do it. Hugely centralised and bureaucratic….that\’s not the way to do anything, really, is it?