Would a tie-up between excellent teaching and extra funding be a valid and fair system? Stephen Court investigates the unevenness in key HEFCE findings. Should funding be linked to high-quality teaching? It is in Scotland and Wales. Now the Higher Education Funding Council for England wants English universities to follow suit.
HEFCE is proposing to make excellent quality one of the factors determining the allocation of extra students - and therefore extra cash - to universities. Other factors include student demand, national policy and regional need.
It has just sent universities a consultation paper on the future funding method for teaching, with an October deadline for responses. The council will make final decisions by the end of the year, leading to a revamped funding regime for 1997/98.
Currently in England a department's quality assessment grade is not linked to funding - except where education is still thought to be unacceptable after an initial unsatisfactory judgement, and funding is withdrawn. Teaching quality assessment (TQA) grades are not envisaged as the sole basis of a university's case for high quality - quality audit reports could also be used. But TQA is likely to be the most significant element, particularly if HEFCE and its proposed review panels are to be asked why they favoured one institution more than another.
But would a link between excellent teaching and extra funding - if finally agreed - be valid and fair? At first glance the answer seems obvious. Institutions providing high-quality education should be rewarded. The unsatisfactory should be remedied or rooted out. Such a link would address one of the criticisms of the funding of teaching in England: that its overriding concern is unit cost, not quality.
However, an analysis of the first 15 subjects in teaching quality assessment by HEFCE between 1993 and 1995 - under the former three-grade system - indicates unevenness and possibly unfairness in the results. Using a score of 3 for excellent, 2 for satisfactory and 1 for unsatisfactory, the average assessment result for all subjects, grouped under their appropriate academic subject categories (ASC), was 2.3. These ranged from 2.1 (maths and information technology) to 2.5 (art and design).
If the numbers are rounded, it means that assessments of subjects in the maths and IT ASC were on average satisfactory, and were excellent in the art and design ASC. Unevenness is also evident according to when the assessment was carried out. In 1993, the average score was 2.2; this had risen to 2.4 by 1995.
Those differences are shown more starkly when institutions are analysed according to whether they are "old" (existing pre-1992) or "new" (former polytechnic). In the old universities, the average assessment score was 2.5, ranging from 2.2 (maths and IT) to 2.7 (art and design). In the new universities, the average score was 2.1, ranging from 2.0 (maths and IT), to 2.3 (art and design). In 1993, the average score in the old universities was 2.4; by 1995, this had risen to 2.6. In the new universities, the average in 1993 was 2.0, and 2.2 in 1995.
This indicates that grades were consistently higher in some subjects and years than others, and that old universities consistently outperformed new. If the numbers are rounded, then in the old universities, five of the subject categories were satisfactory on average, and four were excellent. In the new universities, all the subject categories were satisfactory; none was excellent.
There may be a number of reasons for this (including institutions getting better at being assessed, staff:student ratios, institutional reputation, background of assessors, etc), but it is hard to overlook the relationship of teaching and research.
In 1995/96 (for institutions receiving more than Pounds 10 million overall HEFCE funding) the chief recipients of research funds were all old universities, ranging from Oxford (60.7 per cent of funding was for research), down to Brunel (15.4 per cent). The highest percentage for a new university was Portsmouth (9.4 per cent).
This strength in research funding translates into the results from the research assessment exercise. In the 1992 exercise, the highest average score (maximum 5) was 4.7 (Cambridge University). The lowest old university average score was 2.8 (Goldsmiths College and Salford University). The highest new university score was 2.5 (Kingston).
The correlation between research funding and RAE score is statistically significant, which is not surprising given their methodological link. More importantly, the correlation between RAE scores and teaching quality assessment grades is significant. This indicates a link between high-quality research and high-quality teaching - a viewpoint widely maintained in the old universities.
The importance of the correlation of RAE and quality assessment for the linking of teaching funding and quality assessment is that the playing field in higher education is not level. The old universities, with their research tradition and far higher levels of research funding, are able to provide learning in a research environment which, in most cases, is not available in the new universities.
Without significantly greater research resources for the new universities, their teaching quality will continue to rank behind that of the old universities. Although this conclusion sounds impractical because of the latest Government funding cuts - and unfashionable in the light of recent calls by the national academies and the review of postgraduate education for more selectivity in the use of research funding - it still needs to be made. One alternative, being put forward by the Labour party among others, would be to set up regional research centres.
These could be based in departments which gained a 4 or 5 in the RAE, with research-active staff seconded from other institutions, and disseminating their findings to staff throughout the region. But this would require a radical restructuring of how research funding is distributed, and the willingness of those departments not selected to be a regional centre of excellence to sacrifice much of their research funding.
If high-quality teaching is now to be rewarded in England either with cash or with additional student numbers, the old universities will gain most from this. The new universities will, in effect, have even less.
If our unified higher education system is to take comparability of academic standards seriously, and wants to avoid a new binary divide, then the importance of the research-teaching link, and the funds to promote that, needs to be reassessed. What better forum for that than the Dearing inquiry into higher education?
Stephen Court is a researcher at the Association of University Teachers. This article, which reflects his own views, was based on a paper given to the "Dilemmas of Mass Higher Education" conference in April at Staffordshire University.