Researching questions

The Research Foundations of Graduate Education - Places of Inquiry
February 23, 1996

Burton Clark has an instinct for picking important topics in higher education and moulding them into major themes that take on a life of their own. From a British perspective it is unfortunate that the publication of his ideas on research and graduate education has been delayed because he has not been able to assimilate the full impact of the ending of the binary line that we are now much better able to appreciate than when his manuscript was completed. Nevertheless, at a point when the tensions between research, graduate education and mass higher education are at their height as universities prepare for the 1996 research assessment exercise, these studies provide an analysis of some of the crucial issues in higher education both in this country and across Europe.

The Research Foundations of Graduate Education offers studies of the issues in Germany, France, Britain, the United States and Japan, while in Places of Inquiry Clark draws the issues together and explores what he calls "the research-teaching study nexus", as it derives from the Humboldtian tradition where "research folds teaching and study into a seamless web of commitment to the advancement of knowledge".

One recurrent theme is how different systems successfully, or not so successfully, protect a research culture within mass higher education, comparing, at one extreme, the French, who concentrate research in research centres, separately funded and functionally distinct from the universities (albeit often located alongside them) and, at the other extreme, the US, where graduate education and research are managed together in the research-intensive universities. There is no question which system Clark prefers. Even though only one out of five masters students goes on to a doctorate, and academic drift in the competitive climate of US graduate schools is persuading ever more universities to buy into the graduate school ethos, it is clear that for Clark the participation of advanced students in a research environment represents "the centre-piece of the infrastructure by which modern universities are best made into places of inquiry".

What are the conditions that serve best to promote a research culture? In a fascinating chapter Clark lists the following: differentiation between institutions, competition between universities (an element he sees insufficiently displayed in the German system), an ideological commitment to a research culture and a diversified funding system that enables talented individuals and energetic institutions to generate a spectrum of income streams that can be blended to provide a broad institutional funding base. Clark misreads the British scene somewhat because, while condemning the drift to state control as "nasty and brutish", he gives insufficient credit to the fact that, however disagreeable it may have been to have lived through, it has been the implementation of these principles through competitive funding that has been one of the main drivers of the British higher education system in recent years.

In a cross-national comparison, which will be widely quoted, Clark characterises the German university as an "institute university", the French as an "academy university", the British as "a collegiate university" and the US as a "graduate department university". The British description was probably accurate for the pre-1992 university system but does not reflect the growth and style of the system we have now, which has taken on many more of the characteristics of the US than we could have believed possible. It is in this context, therefore, that we should pay particular note to the forces he says threaten the research and graduate teaching nexus: the concentration on specialised research that can cut researchers off organisationally from teaching graduate level students ("research drift"), the growing involvement of universities in government or industrial R&D funding that can isolate researchers from the rest of the academic community, and the demands of "massification" that can lead to teaching-only institutions ("teaching drift"). In Britain there must be a special interest in the last of these and the importation of ideas drawn from the US that there are inbuilt and divisive contradictions between so-called research and teaching cultures. Clark is an unreconstructed advocate of the graduate school linked to strong research performance as the highest modern realisation of the Humboldtian model, but he also recognises the validity of the best liberal arts colleges where research productive staff teach almost solely at the undergraduate level. In Britain we are emerging from the confining chrysalis of the "collegiate university" but we have not yet defined adequately what is to replace it.

What a close reading of Places of Inquiry illustrates is the extent to which in Europe we are at a crossroads in these issues as public funding declines in proportion to student numbers and research and doctoral study is recognised as having a growing place in national economies. Clark argues that "cross national comparison points to the growing importance of a university framework in which teaching groups are an essential component of research training" and that the academic department "is now the strongest device for this task" because it provides postgraduate training in a whole field of study rather than at a highly specialist level. But for this to be maintained we have to find ways in which departments can be funded for the purpose. The tension between directed funding for specialist institutes and centres as in Germany and France and more broadly based support for the combination of advanced study with research as in the US and, to a lesser extent, Britain, is likely to be at least as great as between the research and teaching "drifts" that represent the more obvious battleground at present.

Michael Shattock is registrar, University of Warwick.

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The Research Foundations of Graduate Education

Editor - Burton R. Clark
ISBN - 0 520 07997 3
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 412

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