The government's twin priorities in higher education - to extend access to a broader range of students while enabling the top research universities to compete with the best in the world - ought not to be incompatible. But, at a time of scarce resources (when are they not?), the approach requires a fearsomely difficult balancing act. Any attempt to pursue one objective is likely to affect the institutions most closely identified with the other.
The separation of teaching and research represents the classic example of where the policy naturally leads. In order to preserve, and hopefully enhance, the quality of universities that are national treasures, many of those most fully engaged in delivering the government's 50 per cent target will be expected to abandon an important part of their mission. The 16 learned societies that issued this week's joint statement (opposite) believe that the national research effort will be damaged by further concentration. But the impact on undergraduates in the less-favoured institutions may be at least as severe. Perhaps the most unsatisfactory aspect of this side of the debate is that so little evidence is being produced. Ministers assert that no clear link exists between research excellence and teaching quality, while academics take it as read that it does.
In the weeks to come, The THES will attempt to inform the debate with evidence from around the world and examine the likely consequences of implementing the government's policy. However, we do not start from a position of pure neutrality. The dangers of a downward spiral in institutions excluded from the research elite are too great for that.
Promising academics will become increasingly hard to attract and students will surely question whether an obviously lower-tier environment merits the new high price tag. Everyone who attended a research-intensive university can recall lecturers who plainly saw teaching as a chore, but most will also have encountered some whose own research lit up the subject. Quality reviews do not show a perfect correlation between excellence in teaching and research, but departments with an active research culture were generally more successful than the rest in teaching assessments. Employers also appear to favour graduates educated in a research environment. The link should not be cast aside without a more convincing case than has been made up to now.