Escape the RAE knife

December 10, 2004

If your 4-rated department is being persecuted, Terence Kealey could offer it sanctuary

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me..."

That is the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour. It is also the inscription over my door at Buckingham University.

Increasingly, under the research assessment exercise, excellent university departments are closing. This is not because student recruitment is poor but because excellence, even in teaching, is no longer viable without research cash - and this is available only to departments ranked 5 or 5*.

One of those targeted for destruction is Cambridge University's department of architecture - one of the best globally - because its faculty focuses on teaching and good practice rather than the writing of arcane papers.

Exeter University's department of chemistry, too, is to be scrapped, even though (like architecture at Cambridge) it has more than five well-qualified candidates for each place.

In a sane world, the full costs of teaching students would follow the students. But today this primary function of the university is woefully underfunded.

There is usually only one opportunity to get the teaching right - few students choose to study more than once. Research can take place in many different organisations. But, if the universities neglect teaching, they betray their students.

Sadly, staff-to-student ratios have halved over the past 20 years, as has expenditure per student. But undergraduates would pay for better.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has said that the best single investment an individual can make (better than a mortgage) is in their higher education. Remarkably, the more graduates we produce, the greater the income boost they enjoy.

As the US experience shows, when markets in higher education are freed, the economic benefits individuals receive are so good that they happily pay full fees.

It was that willingness to pay that recently prompted the European Commission to admit the superiority of US universities, which spend on average up to five times more money on students than their European counterparts. The extra finance comes from private sources.

This provides the obvious solution for Cambridge architecture, Exeter chemistry and all the other homeless, tempest-tossed departments: come to Buckingham.

If you are popular with students and you are threatened by the lack of a 5 or 5* research rating, come to the one university in Britain that is independent of the RAE.

By law, your host university is poor, tired and huddled - and not allowed to charge proper tuition fees. At Buckingham, we price our courses at appropriate levels.

We take teaching seriously, and our recent Quality Assessment Agency report was good. And we prize research. Indeed, some of our departments, such as biochemistry and education, survive almost exclusively through grants.

To help students economise, many departments work, by choice, through the summer, compressing undergraduate degrees into two years. So not all academics are on holiday in August.

On the other hand, ours is no teeming shore: we are intimate, with nine students to each staff member. And, our students, because they pay, are exquisitely polite.

So if you are confident in your offerings, transfer to Buckingham, charge full fees and be independent of the Government, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the RAE.

The market is a frightening place. When the axe hovers, the temptation is to get Griff Rhys Jones to shame Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, or Alison Richard, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge, to screw more money out of the taxpayer.

But breathing free feels better: come to Buckingham - the Ellis Island of the senior common room, haven to us wretched refugees of the RAE.

Terence Kealey is vice-chancellor of Buckingham University.

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