Blossoms nipped in the bud

July 5, 1996

Stopping new universities doing legitimate university work is wrong

Few universities in the United Kingdom are older than 200 years and only two of these are English. When England was industrialising, the activities of Oxford and Cambridge were irrelevant to the emerging needs of the new industries. More than a century after Newton, they were making no significant contributions to the advancement of science and medicine. New universities were seen as the way to establish new subjects and provide a flow of graduates with skills and abilities for the country.

There are now more than 100 universities, created in a variety of ways - both as new foundations or by recognition of older institutions as universities. The ex-polytechnics, which became the newest universities following the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, are experiencing criticisms that echo those of one-and-a-half centuries ago, when the oldest universities no longer served the emerging interests of the country and new universities were being founded with different missions and priorities.

It is wrong to criticise quality (that is to say, fitness for purpose) when only one view of purpose is accepted. Just as the University of London set out to meet new purposes in 1825, so too do the newest universities today.

Many of the older universities have better records of achievement in research, scholarship and teaching. It would be surprising, possibly even a scandal, if they had not.

The polytechnics were also active in research, though not receiving anything like the same degree of research funding as universities. On the basis of delegated authority (from the Council for National Academic Awards) for research degrees, many polytechnics were recognised as universities by the Conference of European Rectors before the UK Government drafted the 1992 Bill.

The then-polytechnics welcomed the opportunity to enter their research into the 1992 research assessment exercise. Of course, we had to enter on others' terms. We had and still have to accept the classification of research that pertains more readily to the older universities; we had the difficulty of describing our work within units of assessment based on the classic subject-based departmental structure of the older universities, not our, often inter- and multi-disciplinary structures and programmes.

Further, any work that was classified as applied received a much lower allocation of funds for a given rating than if it was pure research - this further disadvantaged the polytechnics, with their vocational and applied orientation (only some 40 per cent of work submitted as applied came from the older universities).

The, by now, newest universities welcomed the (small) allocations of funding to help develop their research base in 1993/94. Unfortunately, these funds have not had sufficient time to take full effect in the 1996 assessment exercise. It is likely there were only two-and-a-half years in which the enhanced level of research activity will have been possible, before papers had to be written and submitted to journals in time for them to be published by March 31, 1996. It is most unlikely that the work of any research student appointed using these funds could be included in the 1996 exercise. Contrast this with the situation in the older universities: they already were receiving research funds in 1992/93 (and earlier) and had the full four years of funded research activity to produce work for the 1996 exercise (six years in some units of assessment).

It cannot be just to use the outcome of the 1996 exercise to make severe judgements as to which universities are above the line in research and scholarly terms and which below. It may be hard for people in the older universities to understand the energy that has been released in the ex-polytechnics since their participation in the 1992 exercise. From my own knowledge of two, I can testify to this. This flowering must not be cut short.

Two reports produced recently by the Royal Society and the Higher Education Funding Council for England would both wish to see limitations on vital aspects of research and taught postgraduate work if departments, or rather units of assessment (the two may not be synonymous in the newest universities) do not achieve ratings of 3 or higher in the 1996 research assessment exercise. Perhaps this would lead to more research within accepted paradigms, but what about new paradigms developed from the perspective of institutions with a vocational perspective?

Half the students in higher education, those in the newest universities, would receive a poor education indeed if there were no scholars and researchers active across their university; they could neither contribute to, nor benefit from scholarly and research work.

It is a scandal that universities are suffering from the present decline in resources. But some of the responses to this situation are unprincipled, or at least largely self-interested. It must be right to express concern about the impact of excessive competition for inadequate resources on the behaviour of those responsible for expenditure in the public sector.

To inhibit the newest universities from legitimate university work would be wrong. The older universities may even learn something from our work.

John McGinnety is pro vice chancellor (academic affairs) at the University of East London.

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