January 17, 1997

In arguing that the diversity of the higher education system should be recognised, Frank Webster proposes the designation of an elite group of research universities and suggests that, in time, teaching excellence would be similarly recognised. He should have the courage of his convictions. Now that the teaching quality assessment method has been refined and is applied universally by peer-group panels using a grading system covering all the essential aspects of the student experience, it is as fair or as unfair as the RAE, depending on your point of view.

The 1995/96 round revealed that the received wisdom on where teaching excellence resides does not necessarily correspond to reality. In French, for instance, the top nine (23s and 22s) consist of three redbrick, three former polytechnics, one collegiate, one former college of advanced technology and one plateglass. Of those universities that chose to submit languages jointly, the top seven (23s and 22s) are three former polytechnics, two redbrick, one Oxbridge and one plateglass. Why should "the top dozen or so universities get the lion's share of the funding, while the leftovers fall to a host of also-rans" in research but not in teaching? If the financial logic of the two assessment exercises were applied as soon as each subject had been assessed, universities could play to their strengths and develop accordingly.

Mark Bannister Chair, standing conference of heads of modern languages in universities Oxford Brookes University

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