Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Aspiring Academics - Part One (RAE, REF, and Funding)

My second (of three!) trips to London this week (here's the first [update: and the third]) was to Woburn House for the HEA Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies career workshop for "Aspiring Academics."

The first thing I have to mention about this day is that the cheap advance ticket I bought for my journey was actually in First Class!!! I've never travelled anywhere First Class before so it was all very exciting. Though I declined the offers of various complimentary goodies (tea, coffee, cooked breakfast!!!) because I wasn't made aware that they were complimentary and I thought someone was going to come round with a chip-and-pin machine and I'd have no where to run and hide! Anyway, I think it was pretty obvious to my fellow First Classers that I didn't really belong there. A very nice man (actually a senior member of staff at one of the other secondary schools here in Lichfield - not Sim's school) got me a free bottle of water from the minifridge (Harrogate Spa, no less!) with the word "complimentary" clearly front and centre so that I didn't freak out! Thanks, nice man.

Anyway, to get my train journey cheap I had to arrive two hours early, so I spent a bit of time reading at Euston (I also had four hours to kill the other end of the day!) before heading off to drink complimentary coffee at Woburn House.

The day began with a very brief introduction to the work of the Subject Centre, and then cracked on with the main talks.

Jo Wolff (this photoshoot is a cool thing to include on your uni page) spoke about the shift from the Research Assessment Exercise (here's the RAE2008 webpage, and, as an example, Lancaster University's submissions and results) to the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Mathew Guest spoke about funding opportunities and Joe Cain enthused us with an exercise on networking. As the RAE/REF has remained a mystery to me for a while (staff often presume you know what they are talking about when they use acronyms and Higher Education lingo, and you feel like an idiot for asking) I'll blog mostly about that. But it was great to chat in more detail with Mat. He's lovely. David Mossley was also very informative in his talk about curriculum design, but I think I'll post about that a little later on when I've thought more about it. The career planning session at the end was possibly the weakest, only in that it tended to repeat what we had already covered during the rest of the day. It could have covered a specific aspect of career planning or given us time to actually sit down and, you know, come up with a plan! I think the latter would have been a good idea, particularly as there were people in the room who have already done what we are trying to do and could have given us their perspective on our hopes and dreams from within our own discipline - which hardly ever happens at more general careers events.

In our conference packs we were given some useful resources, including Paul Edwards' "How to Give an Academic Talk: Changing the Culture of Public Speaking in the Humanities" (which you can get online here) Matthew Eddy's "Academic Capital, Postgraduate Research and British Universities: a Bourdieu Inspired Reflection" (online here) and Clare Saunders' "Developing Researchers in th Arts and Humanities: Lessons from a Pilot Programme" (here).

Now, onto the RAE/REF and issues of funding:

There are two sources of funding for research in English HE: the money distributed by Research Councils (like the AHRC and ESRC) and other bodies (where funding is based upon proposals submitted) and that distributed by HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Counil for England) at the time of the RAE. This latter money is therefore backward-looking (i.e. is determined by the quality of previous research) while the former is forward-looking (based on the quality of proposals for future research). The money from HEFCE is therefore (in principle, Jo stressed) for "blue sky" projects, although in practice little is given directly to projects - more often than not going towards the overheads of projects or to fund sabbaticals or library resources.

The instructions for the RAE differ each time it occurs, but this time round (RAE2008) staff had to put forward 4 publications (authored books, edited books, book chapters, journal articles, etc.) which were then assessed and graded from 0 to 5 (click here for an explanation of the ranking system). Jo believes that the REF, although adding various metric indicators to the process and including an assessment of the "social and economic impact" of research, will still boil down to the quality of publications.

It was good to have a bit more clarity on both the nature of the RAE and the proposed form of the REF, as well as to be able to reflect about what this shift might mean for us as nearly submitted doctoral candidates and early career researchers. Jo said that the RAE has introduced a cycle into employment practices, as the more staff that are put into the RAE the more funding the department has a chance of gaining. Before an RAE, therefore, departments high candidates with a good amount of publications in prestigious journals, for example, to boost their chances. This means that, at this point in the cycle, just after an RAE, there are less full time positions on offer and more temporary (unstable) jobs around. However, it's not necessarily all doom and gloom because, as new researchers, we will have fewer publications but those departments who are hiring fulltime members of staff will be less obsessed with hiring someone with an "RAE-compliant" (read chocka of publications) CV. Yay!

Jo's advice, nonetheless, was to try to get at least one article in a really good journal, to increase your employment prospects. Quality is better than quantity.

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