Finding new ways to measure success

May 14, 1999

Universities are still described as 'old' and 'new'. But these labels do not do justice to a diverse and rapidly changing sector. Alan Thomson reports

A new pecking order is emerging in English higher education seven years after polytechnics joined the university club.

Many in the post-1992 pack have been haunted by accusations of "Mickey Mouse" courses and "dumbing down". They, in turn, have accused their tormentors of snobbery, of not understanding new ways of learning and teaching or the need for new types of vocational courses.

What these debates can overlook is that the pre- and post-1992 university groupings contain in them very different and fast-changing institutions. Both Peter Knight's and Paul Ormerod's cluster analyses (graph below and opposite page) highlight new groupings of universities with similar characteristics.

Some post-1992 universities have done well in securing research money from the funding council, while others in the group have done poorly. And the government's revamped funding system - which from next year will reward universities for recruiting students from poor backgrounds - brings with it a new measure of success. For the group that has done well in research has, with some exceptions, done less well in gaining the cash for participation.

Some institutions, such as the University of Luton, will only get a Pounds 81,415 research grant next year, but Luton came second in The THES's league table of institutions that have been successful in widening participation, getting Pounds 247,644 in recognition of its achievements. By the government's measure, Luton and others like it are hugely successful in helping to create the lifelong learning society that is the educational touchstone of the Labour administration.

The government wants to ensure that improved access does not impair quality. There is worry that the new universities that do the least academic research, as recognised by the research assessment exercise, risk teaching quality.

Thames Valley University is the most obvious recent example. After last November's disastrous quality assurance report, it has had to implement a recovery plan that states clearly that research should be "strictly limited". TVU, and many other new universities that have adopted a similar tack, believe that teaching quality can be maintained through scholarship, by which they mean staff keeping up to date by reading about developments in their fields.

But do students believe this? Applications to TVU have plummeted by about a fifth, Luton by more than a fifth. Overall applications to post-1992 universities have dropped slightly more than those to "old" universities, though this could be because post-1992 universities take more mature students, and their numbers have dropped by about 10 per cent. And there are those that buck the trend. Applications to De Montfort are up by about a fifth, and up by 5 per cent at Oxford Brookes.

These variations make the post-1992 sector adamant that it cannot be viewed as homogeneous. Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University and chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities, said: "The new institutions will increasingly differentiate themselves by their missions."

Dr Copland believes diversity is the key to understanding the new university sector. Ideas about the nature of education are changing rapidly as the government tries to revolutionise thinking about how, what and when people learn. New universities are in the vanguard of this, he said.

Paul Flather worked closely with the polytechnics as chair of the Inner London Education Authority's further and higher education sub-committee. He is now director of communications at Oxford. He said: "I am gratified that the new universities have not all tried to ape the traditional university models. The former polytechnics had deep and valuable roots in their communitiesI both economic and social. It is important that they continue to build on these different assets. This produces the kind of diversity we need in our higher education system and creates a genuine lifelong learning ladder."


Parallels drawn between higher education expansion in the 1960s and that after 1992 may ignore changes that challenge the very meaning of "university".

It is tempting to imagine that the class of '92 will emulate the universities created after the Robbins report of 1963. "The obvious comparison is with the new universities in the 1960s," said Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University and author of works on changes in higher education. "But while these were new universities, they were not meant to be a radical departure from the existing system."

The 1960s universities were properly funded and have had years to develop research profiles. The former polytechnics became universities just seven years ago when the Conservative government decided to expand higher education. The growth was quickly halted as students flooded in and the unit of resource fell.

Still, the 1960s universities provide some lessons, Professor Scott said:

"Those that seemed to be the most radical initially have not been as successful in the long run as those that perhaps took a more conservative approach."

Warwick, Lancaster and York made it into the top ten for average research scores in the recent THES league tables. Oxford Brookes, De Montfort and Plymouth were highest placed for research of the post-1992 institutions. And, while they are still far behind most older universities, it is quite possible that in 20 or 30 years they may surpass traditional counterparts. Kingston, Northumbria and Oxford Brookes came top of the '92 group for teaching.


Manchester Metropolitan University

Within 20 years, Manchester Metropolitan University hopes to have become what amounts to a "traditional" university with strong academic research underpinning high-quality teaching .

Vice-chancellor Alexandra Burslem believes this is possible for MMU which, in its short time as a university, has consistently received among the largest research grants of any new university.

Mrs Burslem said: "A 2020 vision that sees MMU with a strong research and teaching profile is a legitimate aspiration. MMU has made the decision that it needs a mix of good research and good teaching to be the kind of university it wants to be."

She cites the successes of 1960s universities such as Warwick, and Bath. She also notes that the split between old and new universities is not vast because the pre-1992 universities are, like new universities, highly differentiated.

But there are obstacles, Mrs Burslem acknowledged. "There are enormous difficulties for institutions such as MMU to increase the recognition of and the resourcing for research because of the inherent bias in a system in which success breeds success. The pressure for increasing selectivity from the successful research-based universities is making the transition for new universities more difficult."

The university must also juggle the management tensions likely to grow between improving the research profile and the widening participation agenda. MMU has the largest student population of any UK university bar the Open. A fifth of its 32,000 students are postgraduates, and a third of its 1,300 academic staff are research active. It is a condition of appointment that all new academic staff must be research active, and there is a programme to encourage staff to carry out more research.

Greenwich University Greenwich University could be the template for a modern university that borrows the best from the old and new systems.

Ideally, Greenwich will evolve into an institution that straddles, and so negates, the divide between the pre- and post-1992 universities, said pro vice-chancellor John Humphreys and research director Mark Cross.

Professor Humphreys said: "We want to help dismantle the differences between old and new. Our aim is to break the mould. We do not see the tensions between teaching and research and think that universities are places where both should happen. We are not trying to emulate an old university.

"I think there will be a batch of new universities moving to positions that take the best of the old and new systems. It may end up that we have four or five different types of institutional missions. The teaching-only institutions are more likely to be composed of the '92 universities. But I think that universities would be weakened if they did only teaching or concentrated too much on research."

Greenwich has come a long way. Next year it will receive the largest research grant of any new university - last year it did not even make the top ten. It is strong on widening participation, but it will get less widening participation funds per student next year than many modern universities, because much of its strength is in attracting poor mature students part-time. The Hefce money reflects success in attracting young full-time undergraduates.

Professor Cross said: "From 1993 onwards the university realised that it was into a new ball game given that teaching income was falling. Our focus on research became more structured and formal. The new strategy was to develop research strengths where appropriate and that they should be as good as in any university."

The Greenwich makeover is completed by the new campus on the banks of the Thames at Greenwich. No university, new or old, can boast as grand a site as the Wren-designed former royal naval college. Deputy vice-chancellor John MacWilliam has said that the former polytechnic is deliberately donning the clothes of an ancient university.

The University of Central England The University of Central England is raking in money from research, but only a tiny proportion is state cash won through the research assessment exercise.

In the last financial year, UCE earned Pounds 15 million through research and consultancy activities. This was mainly applied research undertaken for local industry and businesses. It compared with UCE's total funding council research grant, based on RAE performance, of Pounds 707,065.

Vice-chancellor Peter Knight sees little point in chasing RAE grades except in a small number of highly specialised areas where there is a chance of a real financial return. Better to pursue private income even though the academic work, however good, rarely counts towards the RAE.

Dr Knight said: "I would be surprised if money from the RAE ever makes up more than 10 per cent of UCE's Hefce income. There is so much potential money in the RAE, and that's why it is tempting to put one's snout in the trough. But the sheer cost of investing in basic research handicaps most modern universities."

While RAE competition with older universities, which have had far longer to build their research base, may be a one-sided contest, Dr Knight said this has not stopped many modern universities buying the traditional line.

"In terms of widening participation, there is a huge difference between, say, Oxford Brookes University and the University of North London or Thames Valley University. The social mix of students in the new university sector is as wide as in the traditional universities," he said.

Dr Knight's biggest difficulty is that while there is obviously stratification in the higher education sector and within the modern universities group, the wrong measurements are used to judge their apparent "worth". "What is absolutely crystal clear is that linear ranking of universities is absolute rubbish that damages universities," he said.

Warwick University Post-1992 universities should not rely on state funding to fuel their drive for research excellence, according to the Warwick University blueprint for success.

Warwick has transformed itself from brand-new university to one of the country's top research institutions in little more than 30 years. It was recently ranked fourth by The THES in terms of research performance. Yet this achievement owes as much, if not more, to its entrepreneurial spirit as it does to state funding.

In the early 1980s, the Conservative government slashed university funding. Warwick, which fared better than many, decided that it could not wait for funding to improve if it was serious about living up to its goal of becoming a leading research institution.

It built on its links with the private sector and, helped by its proximity to Coventry and the car-making industry, developed its applied research and consultancy work. Less than 20 years on, the university earns nearly Pounds 100 million a year from its commercial work. To put this in perspective, Warwick's total funding council grant for next year will be Pounds 39 million.

Jonathan Nicholls, Warwick's academic registrar, said: "Earning this money has enabled us to invest in staff, which means we have low student-to-staff ratios, invest in research facilities and in the campus. This has led to our doing extremely well in research assessment exercises.

"It would be much harder for the post-1992 universities than it was for us because they were so poorly funded from the outset."

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