Higher education Green Paper: have universities really neglected teaching?

Richard Black on the ‘lazy and self-serving argument’ that research and teaching are in competition

November 9, 2015
University lecturer

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.

Read our in-depth coverage of the higher education Green Paper

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.

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Reader's comments (3)

The green paper appears not to have mentioned the role of professional accreditation of degree qualifications. The Professional institutes and Societies have a major input to the curriculum for many university courses, including required periodic updating to incorporate new research and developments in the particular industry or field of activity. Indeed they have played a major responsibility for maintaining relevance and teaching quality, particularly for technical and vocational qualifications. Furthermore, expected expansion of level 6/7 apprenticeships is likely to require a much more diverse pattern of teaching delivery than hitherto provided by HE. So also might research input, as extension of the Doctoral training programme seems set towards helping improve SME innovation capabilities in particular.
Richard Black is right to highlight the need for an active debate around the government’s Green Paper on higher education but I am not sure he is on solid ground in either his implicit defence of the REF or his views on the importance place of teaching in Universities. It is hard to justify the £246 million spent on REF 2014, a sum greater than the total income of most UK Universities. Even worse, as an exercise it has failed against almost all the objectives defined when set up or in the last substantive review of its aims and outcomes. It is equally clear from the latest THES rankings that the REF is leading to increased concentration of research funding in the golden triangle of London and the South East of England. Richard is right that most of the effort of academics and the bureaucracy of our institutions is already devoted to teaching. I am not sure, however, that a “whole raft of committees,” departments and dedicated staff is quite the same as giving teaching the same priority in Universities as teaching. Like Richard, I’ve taught in a number of Universities, but can’t think of any that gave the same priority to teaching in status, promotions or resource allocation. The NSS is, for example, valuable development but I find it hard to imagine many Universities highlighting a high ranking in the NSS in the same way they flag REF successes. Equally I’d be surprised if as many Chairs or Deanships are awarded for great teaching as for joint authorship of a paper in a 4 star journal. The fundamental problem that the Green Paper acknowledges but scarcely addresses is that teaching quality is far more diffuse, harder to quantify and subject to wider cultural differences than research. The great ex-cathedra lecturer may be poor at student support, even worse in group work while the author of a 4 star paper is far less likely to be an inadequate scholar or researcher. None of this obviates the case for searching for solutions and internal equity in status, promotions or resource allocation. Perhaps abandoning the failed experiment the REF would be a better way forward, while spending the money saved on teaching support or even research.
I have spent my whole life in teaching and learning, and have taught in all phases of education in my career. Always wanting to update knowledge and skills I turned to the university for good information. what I found was an appalling indifference to both teaching and learning. Failures are systemic and include lecturers not receiving training in teaching of any description, that always tells, lecturers not able to speak English clearly, lecturers not understanding the personal tutor system, lecturers having differences of opinion over their role with students (that is private high fee paying customers), course information found in the course hand book that is not acted upon by staff, students routinely contacted by administrators about academic matters as opposed to academic staff. The list goes on. I was there to learn about English Law and how it interacts with systems in England, I am already aware that Scotland has its own legal system, N Ireland has its own parliament and Wales has derogations from a variety of laws. I was supervised by a nice Japanese gentleman who had come recently to these islands and referred to something called UK Law and he was not the only lecturer being less than accurate about law in this country. Any one with a modicum of general knowledge about the British Isles, would certainly understand that there is no such thing as UK law. I wanted to explore the laws concerning the control of Tuberculosis in England and Wales, he talked about a slut walk in Canada as far as I was able to tell from his poor English. Indeed the best information I did receive was from a professor from another university who did not clock watch and spoke to me for half an hour over the telephone without asking for a penny. To say I am annoyed about the waste of my precious time, money and energy by the time wasting University is an under statement. Government needs to inspect the teaching and learning delivered by universities as a matter of urgency. Personally I want my money back for goods and services not delivered. This message is supplied in crystal clear English, very unlike the variety supplied at Keele.