The government’s Green Paper on higher education, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, has been published, and you could be forgiven for thinking that it does not have much to say about research (although Times Higher Education did a good job of highlighting the headlines).
However, a closer reading reveals that the Green Paper makes three bold assertions about the balance between research and teaching that should not pass without critical scrutiny. It says in the first paragraph of the executive summary, for example, that UK research is world-class. I’m not going to argue with that; indeed, I’d even agree that this reflects, at least in part, the fact that successive governments have had “a consistent focus on stimulating and supporting research excellence”, as the paper also states.
It also says that a series of proposed changes in higher education architecture – including the abolition of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the potential merger or near merger of the research councils – will “have implications for research”. This is perhaps the understatement of the entire document. It is Hefce that has driven the “consistent focus on stimulating and supporting research excellence”, so its abolition is no light matter.
The Green Paper goes on to set out what those implications are, in a section interestingly called “Reducing complexity and bureaucracy in research funding”. Three key points are made:
- A renewed commitment to the principle of “dual support” – in other words, a system in which universities get some core research funding driven by a formula of some kind, while further funding is available to individual academics and teams of researchers in the form of demand-led research grants
- A commitment to conduct another research excellence framework – although not before 2021…
- …and this REF needs to be less bureaucratic, as we spent £246 million on REF 2014, compared with just £66 million on the 2008 research assessment exercise.
That might not seem much – dual support delivered in a different way; a delay of one year to the REF, and perhaps some simplification, but otherwise not much else is changed. Questions might be asked about how dual support will be maintained if there are not separate bodies to implement the two sides; and whether momentum will be maintained on research excellence if researchers are told to take their collective foot off the pedal for a year; but these can perhaps be addressed.
But the devil is in the detail of implementation, and the outcome of the consultation that the Green Paper proposes. And it is here that the overall tenor of the document matters – in particular three key assertions of the document that have more profound implications for research than any of the proposed regulatory changes.
Perhaps the key assertion of this Green Paper is that in universities we have spent too much of the past few decades worrying about research, and not enough about teaching. The implication is that while our research is excellent, our teaching is not. As a result, students graduate without sufficient skills for the workplace, with qualifications that are inconsistent across the sector.
We need a teaching excellence framework, like the REF, to put this right – but one that is driven by metrics rather than by an expensive bureaucratic exercise like the REF.
But hold on a moment. I’ve worked in higher education in four institutions over more than 20 years and can say with some confidence that this is not the case. On the contrary, the vast majority of the effort of academics and the bureaucracy of our institutions is already devoted to teaching. We have had quality assurance ever since I can remember, a whole raft of committees, departments and staff dedicated to ensuring teaching quality. The “industries” of quality assurance around teaching existed long before the bureaucracy of the REF.
And is our teaching really delivering graduates with deficient skills? The huge success story of British universities in attracting overseas students suggests otherwise.
A second key assertion of the Green Paper – although this time implicit rather than explicit – is that teaching and research are somehow in opposition to each other. We spend time thinking about how our research can be world-class, but as a result we let our students down.
Yet this also is simply not true. Teaching and research are not in opposition to each other in UK universities. On the contrary, it is a core strength of our system that teaching in our best universities is research-led. Our best teachers are often our best researchers. And teaching that is uninformed by research is second-rate at best. This is one of the core reasons why our universities are beacons for top students and staff from around the world.
Why would the government be implying otherwise? There are two good reasons for this. First, the narrative of teaching and research being in opposition is one that many academics repeat, as it reflects their daily experience. Yet with sufficient planning, teaching and research can be made to dovetail, to the benefit of both students and academic staff.
But perhaps more important, one of the core messages of the Green Paper is not about teaching or research at all, but about the government’s determination to “open up” UK higher education to new (private) providers. These providers come in various shapes and sizes, but from BPP and the University of Law to the New College of the Humanities, what they all share is a focus on teaching, not research. Downplaying research, and suggesting an opposition between teaching and research, plays directly into the narrative peddled by these new providers, that excellent research is not necessary for excellent teaching. But it is.
The third key assertion of the Green Paper is that the management of universities needs to be less bureaucratic. The REF, we are effectively told, has cost us too much: the TEF will not be the same. It will be more metric-driven, and perhaps the REF should be too.
This assertion is wonderfully ironic – the call for less bureaucracy in the management of universities is one that unites a government Green Paper that proposes an immediate increase in tuition fees in most institutions with a student movement that opposes fees altogether.
Yet we should be careful what we wish for here. One person’s excessive bureaucracy is another person’s determination to make sure excellence is fairly measured and meaningfully promoted. Indeed, just a few months after James Wilsdon’s excellent report that warned of the dangers of moving towards a metric-based approach to research excellence, here we have a Green Paper advocating a metric-based approach to teaching excellence, and implying again that we might go down that route for research as well.
In the spirit of such a metric-based approach, I’d give the Green Paper a 2/10 for research. It says some good and true things about the excellence of research in the UK, and about the important and positive role that government has played in promoting it. But it then repeats without attribution the lazy and self-serving arguments of those who think research is unimportant to an excellent education. We must do better in our thinking than this.
Richard Black is pro-director (research and enterprise) at Soas, University of London.