Leader: Lack of research cash leaves hard choices for many

February 22, 2002

Politicians who think students should pay more to go to university support the argument by pointing to graduates' enhanced earning power. Nobody disagrees that college education brings advantages. So it is extraordinary that Universities UK should commission research to show that the degrees its member institutions teach are worthwhile. UUK seems determined to show that today's degrees pass the Three Bears test - not too academic, not too vocational, but instead, just right. But the analysis should go deeper than, for example, showing that media studies is a valid university subject.

Now we need to consider how universities are to deliver the personal and financial benefits they offer to the broadest possible group. And the latest research assessment exercise, along with the government's forthcoming spending review, provides the context. Unless a very large amount of new money emerges from the spending review, the aftermath of the RAE will mark the end of the idea that all academics are involved in the two main tasks of university life: the development of human capital, or teaching, and of intellectual capital, research. Now the funding council will be underfunding, or not funding, research which is worthwhile by its own criteria.

One of the first to react to these changes is South Bank University, which is minimising its research to concentrate money and effort on teaching. For a university that submitted more than 30 per cent of its academics to the RAE and has a clutch of 4-rated departments, this is a brave move. But given its central position in London, one of the world's great centres for graduate employment, it may be the right one.

Although a department that does no research can teach brilliantly, there are risks it may not house the depth of knowledge needed to support postgraduate teaching. Postgraduates are growing in numbers and mean big money to many new universities. The right to award research degrees is one that new universities will not want to lose. But a degree that is awarded for creating new knowledge can come only from a department that does just that. Admitting they do not provide this setting is a step many universities will be reluctant to take.

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