There is an excellent review essay by Simon Head on the future of British universities in the NYRB. It discusses the Strategic Plan of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), including the “Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) led every six or seven years.” As of 2008, panels of 10 to 20 specialists in 67 fields evaluate work during RAEs. As the author explains,
The panels must award each submitted work one of four grades, ranging from 4*, the top grade, for work whose “quality is world leading in terms of originality, significance and rigor,” to the humble 1*, “recognized nationally in terms of originality, significance, and rigour.” The anthropologist John Davis . . . has written of exercises such as the RAE that their “rituals are shallow because they do not penetrate to the core.”
I have yet to meet anyone who seriously believes that the RAE panels—underpaid, under pressure of time, and needing to sift through thousands of scholarly works—can possibly do justice to the tiny minority of work that really is “world leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.” But to expect the panels to do this is to miss the point of the RAE. Its roots are in the corporate, not the academic, world. It is really a “quality control” exercise imposed on academics by politicians; and the RAE grades are simply the raw material for Key Performance Indicators [KPIs], which politicians and bureaucrats can then manipulate in order to show that academics are (or are not) providing value for taxpayers’ money.
Imagine “needing to sift through thousands of scholarly works” in short order; what a bizarre process. There are many critics of RAE; this essay is particularly worth reading because it connects the dots between corporate-speak and the new academic order: