Analysis: Is research cull on cards?

January 17, 2003

In the third of our series on what the government must address in its upcoming strategy paper, Caroline Davis looks at research funding - an issue that threatens to divide pre and post-1992 institutions - and at whether teaching-only universities are the way forward

In the biggest upheaval of higher education in recent years, the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act created 33 new universities. These polytechnics had achieved an impressive record for vocational training and were more successful than universities at attracting students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Last year, new universities celebrated their tenth anniversary. But there are strong indications that a new divide is emerging - between teaching-intensive institutions and those that are research led.

As the government prepares to publish its higher education strategy document, the gap between research-intensive institutions and those that concentrate on teaching is clear. Many believe that the strategy will serve to make the gap wider, if not sever links altogether.

Of the post-1992 universities, De Montfort has climbed the highest up the Higher Education Funding Council for England research funding table, to 49th place, but it still receives less than any pre-1992 university.

In December, hints that up to half of former polytechnics could lose their research role emerged. Education secretary Charles Clarke was said to be determined that universities should "play to their strengths" to make the most of scarce resources. Mr Clarke was said to be worried about money being wasted on low-rated research.

Diversification is new buzzword. Universities should find their own role in life - perhaps as centres of research excellence, perhaps as specialists in teaching and widening participation, perhaps as powerhouses driving local economies.

Tough decisions by England's funding council after the 2001 research assessment exercise led to cash being awarded only to departments rated 3a and above. The funding level for departments below 5* was reduced, and many departments rated 5* had their funding cut.

Again, post-1992 universities tended to be the losers. This was only the second RAE that some had taken part in, and many had burgeoning research departments. Many new universities - proud to have upped their scores - were dismayed to hear they were to receive little extra reward.

Another indicator of research prowess - the number of funded doctoral students in a department - could also be under threat. The funding council has announced that it will reassess plans to remove funding for PhD students from departments rated lower than 3a. Even so, five institutions award a quarter of all PhDs.

This year, Hefce is spending £940 million on research in 130 institutions. Cambridge University received the highest grant, £68 million (7 per cent of the overall pot and the same proportion that all new universities together received). Thames Valley University received the lowest, £36,000.

The top four universities (Cambridge, University College London, Oxford and Imperial College) split more than a quarter of the pot. The top ten universities shared half. Three-quarters went to 25 universities. The bottom ten universities were allocated just 0.4 per cent of the pot. Similar figures across all research councils were not available, but for the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, the top ten universities (7 per cent of universities) hold 45 per cent of grants.

Just over a year ago, prime minister Tony Blair was said to be backing a plan to form a band of elite research universities. Senior advisers discussed the possibility of channelling cash to top research institutions outside existing formulae.

At the other end of the spectrum, the forthcoming strategy is expected to offer more financial incentives to encourage universities to concentrate on recruiting and retaining students from poor backgrounds.

The wedge between government teaching and research policy is emphasised by the Department for Education and Skills and the Office of Science and Technology and by their approaches to budgets.

The Treasury is convinced that exploiting the fruits of science and technology research is central to the UK's economic future.

To help the UK exploit the knowledge economy, last summer's spending review increased the science budget by 10 per cent. A week after the budget, the government launched its science, engineering and technology strategy, Investing in Innovation , detailing how the increases in the science budget would be spent.

Five months later, the DFES still has not announced higher education's spending review settlement, even though many of the science strategy's funds are held jointly by the OST and the DFES. This has led to speculation of rifts between the science minister and the education secretary, with the OST frustrated by lack of action in the DFES, which in turn is frustrated by the Treasury's emphasis on science itself, at the expense of the universities that produce it.

But funding mechanisms can do only so much. It could be students themselves who become catalysts for change. As more of the cost of higher education falls on the student, the greater the power of the student as consumer becomes. Their clout could force institutions to reform in a market in which they compete for students. The more a student is asked to pay in tuition fees, the more he or she will expect in return from teaching.

In the long term, this will cost universities more. Research departments that can no longer justify their existence in the face of cash needed for teaching may face cuts. Universities facing the prospect of losing their research role could link up with a research university or find funding from commercial sources.

Academics could find their institutions no longer willing to fund low-key research projects as students demand more contact hours and smaller tutorials.

Students have already been exercising their consumer power unwittingly. Falling student numbers in the physical sciences have led to the closure or merger of mathematics, physics and chemistry departments (and thus their research activities) across a range of universities.

But it is not solely science research that could be culled. The arts have traditionally been the research strength of many new universities. Arts research is not as expensive as science research, but its costs are still high in terms of time. Forcing universities to specialise in teaching or research could kill pockets of excellent arts research in universities without world-class science to accompany it.

While government plans to separate teaching and research missions may stem from limited financial resources, the minimal study that has been done on how research affects teaching has failed to find the elusive inextricable link.

But this goes against the instinctive belief of the majority of UK academics. They would argue that, at the very least, bright people will not want to work in universities where there is no opportunity for research.

Are teaching and research-only universities the way forward?

Charles Clarke, education secretary
"We need to identify much more clearly the great research universities, the outstanding teaching universities and those that make a dynamic, dramatic contribution to their regional and local economies. The funding system flows from the conclusions."

Peter Cotgreave, director of Save British Science
"The system needs institutions that are lower in the (research league) table, just as the football Premier League needs the feeder clubs of the second division to bring on new talent."

Ian Haines, director of the graduate school at London
Metropolitan University and head of The Deans of Science Committee "Any attempt to create teaching-only institutions is misplaced, will put us out of step with most of Europe and damage the reputation of British higher education."

Lord Sainsbury, science minister
"A concentration of world-class research in a limited number of universities is taking place, not as a matter of government policy but as a result of cumulative impact of decisions of research councils and other funding bodies."

Dai Hounsell, professor of higher education, Edinburgh University
"While teaching that takes place in research-led departments may well be, in certain respects, distinctive, it is not necessarily 'better', more 'effective' or of higher quality than is teaching geared to other legitimate concerns such as social inclusion."

Chris Weavers, vice-president, education, National Union of Students
"It is important to maintain a mix between research and education in universities. It will improve the quality of learning to have lecturers engaged in the cutting edge of research."

Les Jervis, associate dean, faculty of science, Plymouth University
"You can't produce good science graduates unless you have some interest in research. You can tell by their choice of projects - they go for people who are research active."

Tom Wilson, of lecturers' union Natfhe
"There is not a single university that says it wants to concentrate on teaching. But it will be up to the academic community to look to its laurels and demonstrate how research does feed into good teaching."

Should there be teaching-only universities?
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