Casualties mount in a barmy army

June 23, 1995

Few in universities will be surprised by the statement that time spent on research has declined since the 1986 funding changes. The demands of an increased teaching load, increased administration and management responsibilities taken on by academic staff are to blame.

What is new is that some research has been done to prove it. In a case study of two universities, one ranking high and the other low in all the research funding councils' selectivity exercises, John Mace, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Education has established conclusively that 60 per cent of academic staff agree they are now spending less time on research (Changes to University Teaching and Research: A Case Study of Two Universities' Response to the Research Funding Changes). Although there is no proof that the quality of research has suffered, a respondent summed up the general view as "We're all working barmy hours to maintain standards." Family life and leisure time are the casualties. All those interviewed talked about the collapse of morale, and the inevitability of standards falling unless more resources are forthcoming.

Basic research has declined in favour of applied research. When asked what academic staff were doing instead of research, one typical response was "Bloody admin, and writing applications for grants". Where quality was perceived to have fallen, the blame was placed on lack of time and the frantic pressure imposed to publish quickly. Where quality had risen it was thanks to new, young staff, putting in incredible amounts of their own time to sustain it.

More time was spent on tutorials and lectures due to increased student numbers and the need to support the larger number of weaker students in the higher education system. Although computer support had improved, more than 60 per cent of staff thought that library facilities had worsened.

The main thrust of the research outlines how the funding method was driving every other decision. Senior managers in universities exhorted staff to "get more grants", "publish more", "recruit more students". Policy issues relating to teaching, appointments, retirements and research were largely being determined to conform to Higher Education Funding Council for England prescription. There may have been an adverse effect on research, particularly in the humanities, as staff claimed that the funding formula forced them to follow the science model. What is very worrying is the long-term effect of the decline of basic research. Also the university which was high on the research selectivity list will become increasingly differentiated from the university lower down on the list. The research divide in the institutions seems to set to grow.

This increased elitism was reflected in recent newspaper reports that Oxford University is still the preserve of the rich, with half of the undergraduates coming from public schools. Parents were being advised by an Oxford college to take out insurance policies when their children were two years old and to assume responsibility for funding their childrens' education because they cannot expect the state to provide. Are we getting to the stage when top-quality research will also be the preserve of the rich?

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the student union at the Institute of Education, London University, a member of Unison's national executive and the TUC General Council.

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