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Roll out lifeline for arts and humanities

Reputation is one thing, money is another. For research in the arts and humanities, the RAE is of enormous importance because it doesn’t simply signal the reputation of departments, it is also fundamental to the funding of research in those departments. In the arts and humanities, the QR income that comes as a result of an institution’s performance in the RAE constitutes over 80 per cent of the funding from the dual support system, against about 50 per cent across the rest of the science and research base. So, RAE 2008 is not just a beauty parade; it’s one where the money that flows from that parade is fundamental to being able to do research.

I’m writing this at the end of a very long day, one that was probably just as long in every university round the UK, certainly every university where research is an important part of their mission, and at many others as well.

All institutions will see strengths and weaknesses in their performance but, at Goldsmiths, we’re pleased at consolidating our position within the research-intensive sector that makes up the Russell Group and the 1994 Group. Ranked by the top 4* grade alone, we’re especially pleased to have come ninth of the non-specialist institutions.

So, as it was for many in university senior management and their planning and research offices, yesterday was exhausting. And a day that hasn’t left much time for detailed analysis of the national picture, uncoloured by the need to know how well one’s own institution has done.

Nonetheless, a quick sketch of reflections might be worthwhile, partly because the RAE is so materially important for the arts and humanities, and also because the performance across institutions doesn’t always match the performance across subjects as a whole.

The arts and humanities have a good number of specialist institutions, for sure, but then specialist institutions exist in the sciences as well and they’ve mostly come out well from the RAE. More distinctive, perhaps, is the extent to which post-1992 institutions have climbed the league tables that, in general terms, are dominated by the older and research-intensive institutions.

In a simple league table based on Grade Point Averages, the top 60 institutions contain just two post-1992 universities (the University of the Arts, perhaps better seen still as an aggregation of specialist institutions, and Ulster). If one just looks at the arts and humanities, however, there are seven in the top 60, and 10 in the top 63!

Some of these institutions have done well by submitting relatively few staff for assessment, but others, such as Brighton (at 28, the top-ranking new university in the arts and humanities table, and one with real strengths in the arts) and Westminster (at 47) provided fairly substantial submissions. This is even more the case with the large submission from the University of the Arts (ranked at 58).

Such rankings reflect the strength of the creative and performing arts in the newer part of the sector, but not exclusively so. The success has emerged from the current levels of research funding and research concentration, and underlines the importance of funding excellence wherever it is found.

Position in the arts and humanities frequently doesn’t align with the overall position of an institution. Some research-intensive institutions do a lot better in the arts and humanities than they do overall–York, Warwick, Queen Mary, King’s College London, University of East Anglia, City and Royal Holloway are all striking examples of that, though there are more. Others do less well in the arts and humanities–UCL, Edinburgh, Bristol, Bath and Surrey among them.

It is too soon to speculate on the reasons, and probably unwise because there will be many counter-examples. It does nonetheless appear to be that case that smaller, 1994 Group institutions are likely to be stronger in the arts and humanities than they are overall, and this is probably a function of the challenge to these smaller research intensives of doing well across the board in big science subjects.

While chief executive of the Arts & Humanities Research Board, I learned that it is dangerous to lump together the arts and the humanities as if they could become a single homogeneous block by repeating the phrase often enough.

Just look at the relative success rates of research-intensive institutions in the RAE 2008 units of assessment for the creative and performing arts. In the top 20 institutions in Art & Design, just 8 are research-intensive, with 4 other pre-1992 institutions, 6 post-1992 and 1 specialist. Communications & Media match this achievement, with 10 from research-intensive institutions, 1 other pre-1992 institution and 9 post-1992.

Here is a real breadth of strong performance across the sector. But neither Drama & Dance (13 research-intensive and just 2 post-1992 in the top 20) nor Music (17 and 1 respectively) allow us to say that it is a pattern associated with the practice-based Panel O disciplines. Perhaps there is a larger historical and theoretical component of strong departments in Drama and Music than in Art & Design or Media? I’m not at all sure.

What is clear, however, is the overwhelming domination of the top 20 in the humanities by research-intensive institutions, for example, English 17, History 16, History of Art 17, Classics 19, French 19, German 19, Philosophy 18.

It is also clear that the arts and humanities allow players outside the research-intensive institutions to draw on old achievements or new opportunities, and to position themselves more highly than in the overall league tables. But only in some of the arts are they generally able to make a mark in the top 20.

There are, of course, exceptions, such as De Montfort in English and Oxford Brookes in History, even if the latter couldn’t repeat its famous 2001 achievement of outperforming the University of Oxford in that subject. But overall, it is in the arts where new universities can successfully make their mark, which signals an older capacity on which research culture and performance have been built.

My final comment may not be peculiar to the arts and humanities, and that concerns differential levels of generosity and meanness. The arts subjects spread their marks: the top 20 in Art & Design stretched from GPAs of 3.40 to 2.55, and these were matched for Communications & Media (3.60 to 2.55), Drama & Dance (3.50 to 2.55) and, a little less so, for Music (3.45 to 2.85).

There were, on the whole, lower top marks and more bunching in the humanities, with English’s spread from 3.15 to 2.85 for the institution in 20th place, and History from 3.0 (if one omits the tiny Imperial submission that headed the table) to 2.75. Philosophy had a little more breadth.

Are differential spreads such as these the result of differences of quality or differences of discernment in the marking? And why in some humanities subjects did no department achieve a GPA of even 3.0–French, German, Linguistics, Archaeology and Asian Studies among them?

I suspect that there will be much mulling over differential severities of grading in different disciplines. However, at least the new profiling system’s elimination of the cliff-edge changes between grades meant that assessors were unlikely to shoot their own discipline in the foot in the way that the Art & Design panel did in 2001 by deciding that no submission was worthy of a 5*. That haunted the discipline for a long time, which is probably why their successors used the full mark range this time.

So, there is much to digest in these results for the arts and humanities. We see the continuing strength of the research-intensive universities in the humanities, and the expanding presence of strong research in the post-1992 institutions in parts of the Creative & Performing Arts sector. More broadly, institutions from across the old binary divide were able to sustain international quality research in the arts and humanities in a way that was not repeated across the RAE submissions as a whole.

If the research-intensive part of the sector dominates, then that is why it is the research-intensive part of the sector. But we should celebrate the diversity of places where at least pockets of research excellence are to be found. It is important for the health of the arts and humanities, and it is why government and HEFCE would be well-advised not to seek greater levels of concentration of funding than exist at present.
Geoffrey Crossick is Warden of Goldsmiths, University of London.