Government dealings with the country's agencies for culture and higher learning used to be determined by the arm's-length principle. That is to say, much like an 18th-century patron, the ministry would give the Arts Council or the University Grants Committee a large sum of money, trusting that they would apply it to Britain's best advantage. Better poetry and better education would happen. Over the last fifteen years non-intervention has given way to accountability via audit and quality assessment. In universities this means that 'teaching' and 'research' are now scrutinised and graded by outside panels of peers every three to five years. For teaching, the scale has three steps from 'unsatisfactory', through 'satisfactory', to 'excellent'. For research it now goes from 1 (unsatisfactory), through 3a and 3b (the satisfactory grades), to 5 (of the highest international standard) with a pinnacle of 5* (too good for words). 'Subject areas' - effectively university departments - are assessed as units. The results are published as league tables. Funding follows excellence in the research exercise (which is in its third fully-fledged round) but not yet in teaching (which is in its first). About 15 per cent of departments make the top division and there is a cluster of high-performing departments in a small nucleus of a dozen or so British universities. Aware of their publicly-ratified superiority, this Úlite, the so-called Russell Group of universities, has begun to lobby for special status. As a founder member, Derek Roberts, Provost of UCL, puts it, 'we recognise we are different - or we force everyone to be the same. Either we have an Úlite of about ten, or we face catastrophe.'
LRB 10 November 1994 | PDF Download