At cross-purposes with minister 1

May 23, 2003

There are basically two answers to the question: "What are universities for?" (News, THES , May 16). Universities exist (a) to teach students, and (b) to house communities of researchers/scholars. Today these functions call for very different kinds of organisation, which is why it is time to take research away from teaching departments.

Some research needs to be concentrated in laboratories because of the hardware involved, some in centres where staff can have daily face-to-face contact. But information technology allows many scholars to "virtually" work together in a variety of groupings: contract-based teams, network-based consortia, seminar groups, lone scholars.

Research units, centres and virtual groupings should be separate organisationally from teaching departments, with separate managements, staff and budgets, although teaching departments could invite researchers to contribute to teaching and research units could offer secondments and part-time posts to teachers.

There would be major benefits. The status and quality of teaching would be raised because the staff of teaching departments would have teaching as their raison d'être . Departments would no longer be put through the research assessment exercise. Instead, research units, centres and groupings would be assessed - much more sensible.

Education secretary Charles Clarke deserves some credit for raising the question of what universities are for. It's just odd that it gets raised only after his department has produced its higher education strategy.

Peter Levin
London School of Economics

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