'A gravitation towards the mediocre'?

January 4, 2002

Vice-chancellors and academics met to discuss the rocky road that leads from an elite to a mass system. Clare Sanders reports.

What will higher education look like in 2010? Three vice-chancellors and five young academics met to discuss "Academic 2010: Views from the Next Generation". A picture emerged of a sector unable to resolve how to fund excellent research while increasing participation. Here is what they had to say.


Sir Martin began the conference by identifying the issue of the moment - the pressure for a diverse sector, one in which excellent research could flourish and participation levels could grow.

"The reason why we do not have a funding methodology that will allow for diversity is because it is extremely difficult," he said. "Education secretary Estelle Morris has called for a funding methodology that sustains diversity - but offered no outline of what this might be."

The pressure is coming from the top. Not only are government ministers talking of funding diversity but Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has made it clear that he believes the current pattern of higher education is not appropriate.

"What the university sector has to achieve is not what individual universities want to achieve," Sir Martin said. While most will agree that research has to be funded selectively, for example, few are prepared to renounce their claim.

"Ninety-five per cent of my fellow vice-chancellors agree with the widening-participation agenda. But how to ensure that we teach in such a way that all students are stretched, and how to fund that alongside excellent research, is difficult.

"It is no good arguing that we should fund different universities in different ways, because the edges are fuzzy on every parameter and because there is a danger of ossification," he said.

He said that funding some universities to teach and others to do research would create an "unbridgeable chasm" between institutions, making it impossible for young staff to move between them.

"Is there a way forward?" Sir Martin asked. He answered his own question with a "yes" and said that his views were close to those of Sir Howard. The way forward was through greater cooperation between universities, or "explicit confederalism", which could bring about savings.

He gave an example: "Umist, Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan universities all have chemistry labs. When one closed recently for refurbishment, lecturers used another university's labs without any noticeable drop in standards. The fact that we run three labs normally is an absurd use of public money."

Confederalism could also bring about diversity without ossification by allowing different parts of a federal university to develop different strengths, while making it possible for staff to move between them.

But the model looks a long way off. "There is no one explicitly working with a group of universities to develop such a model," Sir Martin said. "And the government has not funded any research into how to fund diversity."

  • Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of Leicester University

Professor Burgess said he saw a future with more students and greater collaboration between universities. "By 2010, we will have exploded the notion that we are constrained by campuses. Online systems will be developed to meet the challenges. There will be multimedia delivery on and off campus," he said.

He was clear that there would not be "more of the same", but "more of the same quality", with multimedia delivering courses off-campus.

And he felt that universities would benefit enormously from working with business and industry. He described this interaction as a "great advantage for universities". "But the collaboration must be on our terms," he added.

Underlying Professor Burgess's vision of the future was flexibility for students with the option of stepping on and off the learning escalator through modular courses. He saw a growing market of retired people enrolling on higher education courses.

He said he did not want the pressure of delivering the new "exploded" system to be so great on academics that it became unworkable.

"For both arts and sciences, one of the most valuable commodities is time," he said. "Medics in the United States have six months on teaching and six months off for research." He said this allowed both activities to be conducted properly.

Along with other vice-chancellors, he argued that a strong science community made for a strong arts community, and that it must not be seen as an either-or situation. "We need links across disciplines," he said.

  • Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Guildhall University and president of Universities UK

"What will society expect of us by 2010?" asked Professor Floud. "Since the 1960s, when I started in academia, society's expectations of higher education have changed enormously. Now ministers talk of a participation rate of 50 per cent and, for the first time ever, higher education figured in a manifesto of a major political party in 2001."

He said that this new focus on higher education and participation was part of a wider rhetoric, one that included research, links with schools and colleges, links with businesses and the local community, governance and equal opportunities.

"The move from an elite to a mass higher education system is now a central part of our lives," he said. "But managing expectations is a great task. If mishandled, it can lead to a revolution, unintended consequences and disappointment."

Professor Floud said that in the present climate it was difficult for higher education to shape its own future. "There are currently 11 reviews relevant to higher education going on in the Department for Education and Skills, as well as the funding council ones," he said. "Everything is open."

He did not share Sir Martin's view on federalism. His university has just decided to merge with the University of North London. "We are going for a full-blown merger as I am a bit sceptical about the viability of the federalist model." He said that over 35 years he had watched the collapse of London University, "the best federal university in the world". He asked:

"Now that it has collapsed, is it feasible to resurrect it?"


  • Vicky Davies, teaching development adviser and former modern languages lecturer at the University of Ulster

As a modern linguist, one of Ms Davies's chief frustrations is the lack of value placed on arts research. "In Northern Ireland the funding is biased towards science," she said. She said another frustration was the cuts to language departments. "With the departments being cut and student numbers dwindling, the question arises of who are you actually going to teach," she said.

"When I got my first job, teaching became all-consuming," she said. "You have to work towards your formal teaching qualification and find yourself assessing your students at the end of your first year at the very time you yourself are being assessed. There is an incredible workload."

On top of that she felt that young academics felt the strain of the Quality Assurance Agency. "There is an immense amount of paperwork involved, paper audit trails created for the sake of it."

She also commented on the pressure of the research assessment exercise. "The problem is that you may have interesting areas to research, but those areas may not be of interest to your students," she said.

  • Imogen Dickie, junior research fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford

Ms Dickie, a philosopher from New Zealand, first sought to answer the question of why people from her generation went into higher education. "We love our research, we like teaching, we don't care about money that much, and we don't want to be told what to do by morons we don't respect," was her summary.

She found the pressures placed on young lecturers to undertake training in teaching ill-thought-out. "As a philosopher I want to learn how to teach philosophy by hanging around a philosopher," she said. She argued that the training was too generic.

She also felt that research was suffering as it was being done in too much of a hurry. When Sir Martin referred to a letter from a young academic saying that she was leaving academia because she had received no guidance for a career in research, Ms Dickie said: "Surely the point is that someone with a PhD should be able to direct their own research. If we force people to do qualifications in a hurry we get qualifications that are not worth anything."

And the current funding system meant, she felt, "a gravitation towards the mediocre". "In New Zealand, we have already widened participation and lowered standards. As funding is tied to student numbers and most students do not see why, at 18, they should study formal logic, so formal logic has almost disappeared from universities," she said.

  • Margaret Forsyth, part-time tutor in English literature at Edge Hill College of Higher Education and Salford University; PhD student at Edge Hill

"As a part-time lecturer, I find myself excluded from many of the decision-making processes of the universities I work in and financially disadvantaged," Ms Forsyth said. "My travel costs are high and these are not covered." She teaches between six and 15 hours a week.

"The pressure on me to teach takes away the time I have for research. On top of that, there is very little support in terms of facilities for part-timers trying to do their research," she said. "The concern about completion rates and talk of withholding bursaries from those not completing is very worrying for people with families. And when you have completed your PhD you fall into a state of limbo. First-time posts do not come up very often."

One of her recommendations for the future was induction courses for part-timers. "We don't always get invited to meetings and don't know how the department works," she said. "Full-timers have induction courses that are not always open to part-timers."

She said she felt that courses on teaching for lecturers were helpful, but shared Ms Dickie's concern that many were too generic.

"With the widening participation agenda there will be more and more people coming through who are older and who may choose to work part time. It is important that part-timers are taken seriously as both lecturers and researchers," she said.

  • Godfrey Keller, lecturer in economics, Oxford University

"I don't want to whinge," began Dr Keller. "I feel I have the greatest job in the world. I have time to think." But he said the downside was that teaching impinged on research and that the pay was not good.

"I believe that for teachers in primary and secondary schools, teaching is their vocation. But in tertiary education, it is a necessary evil," he said. "We have to do it, but do as little as possible. The undergraduates are very passive, just seeing university as the next thing to do before getting a job."

But he said that teaching postgraduates was far more satisfying. "The teaching leads into their and your research," Dr Keller said.

"Economics is now a very technical subject. France produces the best economists in the world because they understand maths and physics," he said.

He would have liked an induction course at Oxford. "I had no previous knowledge of the university when I joined. Somehow it is assumed that you will learn how the place works by osmosis," Dr Keller said. "I have an academic mentor, but when we do see each other we rarely talk about research. A private company would just not be allowed to get away with this."

  • Matthew Watson, lecturer in international political economy, Birmingham University

"I obviously work in a situation where there are financial constraints," Dr Watson said. "But I don't intend to whinge. You enter academia with your eyes open on the wages front. But the issue of financial constraint does not just hit wages. It affects the whole way your working life is structured."

In Dr Watson's department at Birmingham, the age profile is relatively young. "There are nine of us 35 or younger," he said. "The language of financial constraint is part of our professional vocabulary."

"In terms of teaching, we all recognise that we are encouraged to teach courses with high student demand, those that are best for business in terms of people on seats. We have large MA programmes that encourage people to part with substantial tuition fees. We teach mass-appeal courses and not those that interact with our research interests."

But Dr Watson stressed that he enjoyed teaching undergraduates. "They do give me ideas for my research. I like to expose myself to conversations with undergraduates.

"In terms of research, I feel encouraged to shape my research so that it is attractive to the research and funding councils. And increasingly to fit with European Union priorities. Sometimes that does not match my research interests," he said.

He added that financial constraints affected social interactions. "The way junior colleagues see each other is as potential competitors for the next job. There is an excessive use of short-term and fixed contracts. This has an enormous impact on morale."

Dr Watson ended by recounting a conversation a PhD student had with his grandmother. "'Why do a PhD, why be an academic?', the grandmother asked. The PhD enthused about the prospect of being able to think deeply and write down those thoughts. His grandmother simply asked: 'But why waste such a good education by becoming an academic?'" Dr Watson concluded: "Somehow we have to continue to believe that being an academic is worthwhile."

Annual conference of Standing Conference of Arts and Social Sciences, "Academia 2010: Views from the Next Generation", November 24, Birkbeck College, London.

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