Leader: Use the carrot not the stick to focus minds

December 6, 2002

There is a brutal logic behind ministers' enthusiasm for teaching-only universities of the type that led Margaret Hodge to ask why the government should fund institutions that could not attract students. Successive research assessment exercises have produced consistently low scores at some universities, and many of their departments would be wasting their time and taxpayers' money in working up further submissions rather than concentrating on teaching.

But should whole universities be tarred with the same brush? And is a university without research worthy of the name? The link between teaching and research has been a matter of enduring debate, but the relationship is sufficiently established to have been adopted as a precondition for university status. Many overseas universities are purely teaching institutions, but in Britain, exclusion from government-funded research activity would be seen as relegation. Such universities might be less attractive to students and they would surely struggle to recruit high-powered academics.

Neither is it clear how a university without research would make what education secretary Charles Clarke describes as a "dynamic, dramatic contribution" to the local economy. The part played by higher education in regional development is stressed in Whitehall, with many new universities taking the lead role, but this would be constrained by a reinvention of the binary system. University business centres might still be able to advise local firms but technological consultancy would be all but impossible if teaching was the institution's raison d'être .

Some of the universities that could lose the power to award higher degrees have pockets of distinguished research. An opportunity to carry out such work in collaboration with neighbouring universities further up the pecking order would be no more than a precursor to transfers of the type that the RAE already encourages. The poor relation would be poorer still.

The way to encourage universities to play to their strengths is to give them an incentive to do so, rather than reintroducing failed divisions. Some former polytechnics already regard themselves as teaching institutions but, as the only source of substantial extra funding, the RAE has been impossible to ignore. Proper support for teaching and outreach activities would offer a new focus.

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