More contact? When?

Simplify grant applications and release time for teaching, says Tim Birkhead

December 10, 2009

A group of colleagues is speculating about the future of higher education. The recession and a likely change of government loom large in its prognostications.

Cuts are inevitable, but there may also be a change in thinking. A new government may attempt to create the illusion that it is righting past wrongs in higher education by focusing on value for money both in research and in teaching.

One thing it may do is impose more contact time for undergraduates. There's no doubt that the massive increase in undergraduate numbers over the past 20 years has resulted in reduced contact time between academics and undergraduates. There's also little doubt that contact time, together with teaching quality, determines the end product. But it seems unlikely that a new government would be motivated entirely by the quality of the product that higher education produces. It is much more likely that it will be motivated to give the impression that it is changing things so that students, their parents and the general taxpayer are getting better value for money. In turn, this may justify higher fees.

I am sympathetic to the idea of students having more contact time and better teaching: God knows, many of them need it. The national curriculum has destroyed undergraduates' ability to think for themselves and has duped an entire generation into believing that ticking boxes constitutes an education. In fact, the national curriculum is rather like the hand dryer you find in public toilets: state of the art and superficially shiny, but utterly unfit for purpose. Some don't even blow hot air.

However, imposing more contact time with no recompense will be disastrous. Already stretched to the limit, the research-active higher education community will crack. What a new government needs to do is look at why contact time is low. Several years ago, one of my colleagues opted out of academia to become an industry consultant. His first job involved visiting a paint factory to see why things weren't working as well as they should, and why profits were down. It didn't take him long. The machine that filled the tins with paint was faulty and as a result much paint was wasted. A new machine; the problem fixed; profits soared. The faulty machine in academia is the fact that all the rewards are for grant acquisition and research productivity. Is it any wonder that in most research-led universities teaching is viewed as a secondary activity and undergraduate contact time is low?

The grant-acquisition treadmill is relentless. It is also monumentally time-consuming and demoralising because the failure rate is high and the likelihood of success almost random. Without exception, every one of my colleagues has come back from recent research council grant meetings wringing their hands in frustration and despair at the scale of the bureaucratic burden on academics and the utter injustice of the system. A system that requires academics to spend such a huge proportion of their time writing grant applications, awards those grants haphazardly, and then ranks academics according to how successful they have been in this exercise, is deeply flawed.

I have an idea. Cut down the effort required to obtain funding by distributing it using a simpler model - much as in the more equitable Canadian system - and we'll do some more teaching. A colleague in Canada tells me that he spends about one week every five years writing his grant proposal; for younger academics it takes about one month. Compare that with the UK system!

I bet if you said to researchers, "We'll give you a guaranteed sum of research money to save you spending three or more months writing grant applications each year, in return for, say, three weeks of extra teaching", they'd jump at it.

At a stroke the problem is solved. The imbalance between research and teaching is addressed and academics are relieved of the fiasco of wasting so much time writing and reviewing long-winded applications for grants that have little chance of being funded. Relieved of their cumbersome bureaucracy, the research councils, in turn, will have more money to give to researchers. Best of all though, by relieving those academics in research-led institutions of the relentless burden of grant-application writing, they will have more time for other things, including undergraduates.

Perhaps research funding and contact time could be integrated into a single package - reward high-quality teaching (including an appropriate level of contact time) with research funding. The current system does exactly the opposite - the paint-filling machine is working in reverse - in rewarding successful researchers by relieving them of undergraduate teaching.

But (and this is a big but) academics will be prepared to go along with a more integrated research-and-teaching system of funding only if it doesn't involve even further dumbing down. It is imperative that we maintain academic standards by focusing not on following a curriculum of endless coursework and ticking boxes, or telling undergraduates what key words they need in the exam questions, but instead by teaching undergraduates to think. Better value for money and more contact time must not be synonymous with imposing even more of the national curriculum's values on to higher education.

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