David RobertsProfessor David Roberts, Acting Executive Dean of the Faculty of Performance, Media and English at Birmingham City University, likens a predicted rise in academic research submissions to football tactics.

The transfer window is open. Ahead of the deadline, highly paid talent is being traded between the big boys. You might look to bring in two or three, or perhaps even a whole team. Wage structures creak under the pressure. Some of the cannier operators look further down the table for bargains. Incumbents, meanwhile, get restless: either for action that will enable them to feel they’re part of a dynamic, forward-looking outfit, or because they think they’re on a par with the flashy newcomers and deserve the same rewards. Until the window closes, there’s a lot of head scratching, nail biting and finger pointing.

But that’s just a day in the life of a university, or at least one that’s involved in the Research Excellence Framework (REF for short).

The transfer market is everyone’s favourite footballing analogy for what happens in universities every five years or so. It expresses our fear of how a money-driven culture creates divisions between the haves and the have nots: the predators and the prey (in other terms, the admitters and the recruiters), those capable of playing blackjack with the croupier while others are plugging away at the pinball machines. The transfer market analogy is, on the whole, a depressing one. It suggests that size or prestige will always win out and talent always be drawn to a diminishing number of Champions League contenders. That is, after all, the logic of the term ‘excellence.’

But there’s another football analogy which is less familiar and more hopeful. Football fans recall lovingly the moment when a scorching thirty-yard shot from Hereford’s Ronnie Radford knocked Newcastle United out of the FA Cup on a muddy field in 1972. It was one of the great acts of giant-killing, the little boys flooring the overpaid stars from the top division. Hereford vs Newcastle has its own counterparts in the history of research assessment. In 2001, Oxford Brookes History outscored Oxford History (‘for the first and last time,’ a senior Oxford academic growled to me afterwards). The same kind of thing happened elsewhere, and it’s happening in our midst now. My colleague in English, Greg Leadbetter, has just won the Council for College and University English Prize for the best monograph by a young researcher in 2011. Also on the short list were academics from University College London and – you’ve guessed it – the University of Birmingham.

The best work can crop up anywhere, and that’s as it should be. We owe it to all our students to give them the opportunity to be taught by the brightest and best. But, like all the acts of giant-killing in the history of the FA Cup, it takes a willingness to believe it can happen. Start from the position that you’re likely to lose, and that’s what you’ll do. Ask any football manager.

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Gregory Leadbetter

Gregory Leadbetter

Director of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing at Birmingham City University
Gregory Leadbetter

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