Leader: Will forum bring research U-turn?

November 19, 2004

When Sir Graeme Davies was asked to deliberate on the relationship between teaching and research at the height of the Government's difficulties over top-up fees, his forum seemed a classic vehicle to kick an inconvenient discussion into the long grass. Plans for greater research concentration were proving an unnecessary distraction from the main business of winning support for the Higher Education Bill. They could always be revisited later.

Practically a year on, the motivation for the review still seems the same.

But the message emerging from the undergrowth is not one that chimes with the philosophy set out in the higher education White Paper, which spoke of "steering non-research-intensive institutions towards other parts of their mission". The forum, instead, insists that research-informed teaching is a defining characteristic of higher education. The report goes on to assert -without citing supporting evidence - that "it is clear that... students not exposed to staff research in an appropriate environment may be at a disadvantage as compared with those that are". Many experts, such as Alison Wolf, argue that it is not clear at all, but the verdict is one that will be welcome to the vast majority of academics. No wonder that the forum's report has been consigned to the farther reaches of the Department for Education and Skills website. But, to his credit, Kim Howells, the Higher Education Minister, has concluded that the argument for some research in every department is "convincing". The question (assuming Mr Howells speaks for Charles Clarke, who seemed highly sceptical a year ago) is how this can be achieved without wholesale revision of the Government's plans. Where, for example, does it leave the teaching universities about to emerge from the colleges of higher education? And what of the departments that emerge empty-handed from the research assessment exercise?

The forum draws a clear distinction between research worthy of support in the RAE and the type of work needed to invigorate teaching, and it is careful to stipulate that the "quality-related" funding that will emerge from the exercise should not be raided. The obvious conclusion is that any new research fund would come from teaching budgets. If, as the report suggests, this might amount to no more than £25 million, perhaps an initiative could be accommodated without substantial upheaval. The suspicion remains, however, that the bill would be considerably higher in the post-RAE world and that the approach will prove incompatible with ministers' continued preference for research concentration.

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