At last, teaching will get its due

Alasdair Smith sees the Browne review as a golden opportunity to halt the academy’s distorted focus on research output

October 13, 2010

The early headlines on Lord Browne of Madingley’s review of university fees and funding have inevitably highlighted the financial recommendations: no cap on undergraduate tuition fees, no interest-rate subsidy on student loans, and no graduate tax. I believe these three recommendations are bold and correct, although they have the unfortunate consequence of loading more and more of the cost of higher education on to the individual graduate – something that is hard to cheer wholeheartedly.

However, one of Browne’s major recommendations deserves an unambiguous cheer. Chapter four of the report proposes that instead of the teaching grant being allocated to institutions by the funding council, funding should follow students and universities should be able to recruit more students if they wish. Although this has not hit the early headlines, it implies a fundamental change to the higher education system.

Overall student numbers have to be capped nationally because the public expenditure costs of higher education must be controlled, but numbers in individual institutions do not have to be capped. Removing the cap on institutional numbers means that universities with a good reputation should be able to increase student numbers and turn that reputation into higher income.

In the current system, the balance between teaching and research in universities’ priorities has become ludicrously and pathologically distorted. Most universities judge their success largely on research criteria. Universities whose historical mission was firmly rooted in teaching and in the application of “useful knowledge” chase research reputation at the expense of everything else.

A university will do all it can to retain its academic “research stars” even if they are lousy teachers and neglect their students; it will not make the same kind of effort to retain brilliant and conscientious teachers who have neglected to publish. Indeed, it will not have to make the same kind of effort because other universities do not headhunt brilliant and conscientious teachers.

Faculty members get the message loud and clear – we don’t care how well you teach or how much time you spend with your students; all we really care about is your research. Ask academics what they are working on, and they will tell you about their research; their peers would treat them as tribal outcasts if they regarded teaching as their “work”.

This is not what society needs from our universities. Research matters, but it is not the only thing that matters. Major businesses do benefit from research spin-offs, but ask the leaders of these businesses what they need most from universities, and they will talk about the skills of the graduates they hire.

Ask students or their parents about the quality of the student experience and you will hear persistent complaints about having most of their teaching delivered by teaching assistants because the regular faculty are too busy with research to find time for students. Much of this research goes into papers that are delivered at conferences where the members of the audience are there only to present their own papers; the research papers are destined, with luck, for publication as journal articles with an average readership of three.

The apparently perverse behaviour of universities is a rational response to the incentives they face. If a university teaches well, and looks after its students well, it makes no financial gain in the current funding system. An increase in applications does not result in additional funded numbers because student numbers are fixed by the funding council. By contrast, stronger research performance generates more income from the funding council or from the research councils.

Browne’s proposal implies a radical and much-needed change in the balance of incentives between teaching and research. Universities that have a strong reputation for excellent teaching and graduate employability will be rewarded for their success by being allowed to expand and to increase their income. When funding follows student numbers, universities will at last need to take teaching more seriously. They will need to recruit and reward good teachers; and they should get academics to spend more time with their students, even if that means less time on research.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has often spoken of the need for universities to give a higher priority to teaching. The Browne report’s bold and radical proposal on student numbers shows how to put that principle into practice.

But some of its carefully considered proposals are in danger of being lost in the political whirlwind that follows its publication. Let’s hope that the coalition government does not repeat the mistake of the Labour government’s reaction to the Dearing report in 1998 – an entirely political response that set back the reform of higher education funding by eight years. So let’s doff our caps to Browne, and let’s hope the government takes the numbers cap off our universities as soon as possible.

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