For reasons into which it is too complicated to go, I’ve been reading a lot about the IMF crisis at the end of 1976. As the pound went into freefall on the money markets (O dear, dead days, beyond recall!), Britain applied for a loan from the IMF, conditional on them slashing public spending. In his autobiography, Denis Healey, who was Chancellor at the time, writes about how much he used to look forward to ‘sod off day’*: the day when he had paid off the loan in full and could finally tell the IMF to get lost.
The reason I mention this is because I have my own version of ‘sod off day’. If you are an academic your life is overshadowed by something called the Research Assessment Exercise, which takes place every few years. This all started back in the 1980s. In a process that the sociologist A.H. Halsey calls the ‘Decline of Donnish Dominion’, universities stopped being autonomous scholarly guilds and became subject to external control over their teaching and research, mainly through more organised competition for funding. A great irony of the Thatcher era was that universities were encouraged to embrace the market while finding themselves the victims of what the political scientist Andrew Gamble calls ‘one of the last great experiments in central planning’.
The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), and now its successor, the Research Excellence Framework (REF), have created a formal hierarchy of publications. They value the peer-reviewed journal and scholarly monograph over more marginal or non-scholarly publications. Professional status is now the slave of research assessment conducted by specialist panels that judge work solely by the lights of their own disciplines. In other words, blogs count for zilch.
You need four ‘REF-able’ publications to be in it. I only have two publications at the moment and so the REF has me in its vice-like grip, a particularly painful armlock-cum-Chinese burn like the kind the school bullies used to give.
‘Why should I let the toad work squat on my life?’ asked Philip Larkin. Beats me. It seems to be a universal human trait to create these little bubbles of meaning within which we drive ourselves demented, self-inflicted tyrannies created out of our skewed expectations of what other people want. I suppose it all makes work for the working man to do.
So I am looking forward to the moment when I have four things published and can tell the REF to sod off. With one bound I will be free. The REF can bugger off, get lost, take a running jump over a cliff. The REF, as they say round these parts, can ‘do one’. Sod off day will have arrived.
I’ll let you know when (if) it happens. The cyberspace drinks will be on me.
*I suspect this day has been cleaned up for publication.
Mundane quote for the day:
Cuddling the new telephone directory
After I found your name in it
Was going too far.
It’s a safe bet you’re not hugging a phone book,
Wherever you are.
- Wendy Cope