False premise makes for wrong policy

April 17, 1998

A LINK between quality and funding is again high on the agenda. Ministers wish it so. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has set up a committee to consider how to arrange it. But it generates a problem. Most people want to see a "lighter touch" in quality assurance. An explicit funding link demands, however, an assessment system sufficiently robust (and hence burdensome) to withstand potential legal challenge.

A way out of this dilemma may be to recognise that the apparently self-evident truth that "excellence should be rewarded" is not so self-evident after all. Thinking in this area has been dominated by a single normative proposition supported by an analogy: A. Those who are providing higher quality, ie, performing better, should be "rewarded" with increased teaching funding; B. This principle is widely accepted in its application to research funding, and, by analogy, should apply to teaching. A is unsustainable in the context of public funding, and B is fallacious. We can begin to see the error of A by looking at what is wrong with B.

The purpose of allocating research funds on quality criteria is to maximise the amount of high-quality research purchased. It is plausible to argue that this will be achieved by skewing the allocation towards those who have demonstrated ability to deliver research of the requisite quality. The additional funding is not a "reward" signifying approbation of the successful. It is based on a hard-headed calculation of how to optimise the use of the money. The research assessment exercise is simply an attempt to create a form book to help the funding councils place their research bets.

What is the aim of funding for teaching? It is surely to provide the largest number of places possible at a satisfactory level of quality, thus maximising the educational opportunities of the population. It is not in the least plausible to suggest that this aim will be assisted by skewing funding towards those already providing particularly high quality. Allocating more to them would, given a fixed pool of money, mean less for everyone else.

What are the grounds, within a mass higher education system, for spending more money on those students already enjoying the highest quality of education and less on those not so advantaged? In research, one can comfortably dispense with the work likely to be of a lower standard. In teaching, one cannot equally complacently discard the students who cannot gain access to the best institutions. That is the fallacy in B.

As soon as we see that funding is for the benefit of all students (and not a reward for the providers), the self-evident rightness of rewarding one group of providers at the expense of others evaporates. In a theoretical world, where skewing teaching funding towards higher quality would lead to the elimination of poor providers (with no diminution of places on offer), my objections would fall. But a market solution is inconceivable. Even the previous government rejected it, and present ministers' opposition to differential fees is strong and explicit.

In the real world, there was a positive correlation under the original HEFCE quality assessment regime between being awarded an "Excellent" and a high RAE score. The latter is associated with better funding and facilities. At a time of financial stringency for everyone, could we really adopt a funding mechanism for teaching that had a marked tendency to transfer funds from institutions in general towards those that are statistically likely to be the best funded overall?

But, I hear someone asking, how will we "incentivise" academics to pay attention to teaching and stop concentrating on research? There is a deeply held belief that this is a problem, but deeply held beliefs can be as suspect as self-evident truths. If it is true, why do we get the correlation between RAE success and teaching "Excellents"? Why do my colleagues constantly complain that their research is impeded by their teaching, but not vice-versa? Why have most quality assessments been positive about the efforts of most staff?

There is often a curious asymmetry in argument here. We can all point to one or two bad teachers we have encountered, and this is held to prove that the whole system needs to be turned upside down.

We could all identify a much larger number of excellent teachers, but that is not seen as evidence that the system may actually be quite good. Most of our colleagues are capable and committed (often against heavy odds and manifestly without having been heavily financially incentivised), and it is time that we stopped doing them down.

Ministers must think carefully about a policy that is based on a false premise and whose effect will be the opposite of what is intended.

A system that will sustain a quality/funding link will reduce quality by absorbing in assessment resources that would otherwise go into teaching and by eroding the good will of those on whom we depend actually to deliver quality.

James Wright is vice-chancellor, University of Newcastle.

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