How teaching has fallen for a big con

July 18, 1997

THE DEBATE about the relative merits of teaching and research in higher education and how to reward excellent performance is similar to the way people respond to the imaginary incentives they are offered by the astute con man.

Because the Research Assessment Exercise results in a reallocation of funds, it is seen to give a greater esteem to research, than the assessment of teaching gives to the "other half" of higher education activity. Indeed, there are vocal advocates for a system of rewards in teaching so that students in departments which have the best (assessed) teaching should have more spent on them than those who suffer the worst teaching - a non sequitur of a high order.

Of course, the RAE is largely a device for disguising the cuts which have taken place in the support for research and scholarship in higher education over the past 18 years.

The amount spent per student has declined by some 70 per cent, even more than the reduction of 60 per cent in the amount per student spent on academic salaries. The RAE process, dressed up as a great jamboree and almost as much fun as an election but much more predictable, is an elaborate system for ensuring that those institutions which have been spending most on research continue to spend most on research.

One only has to ask how the RAE ratings would come out if they took into account the funding input as a divisor - that is, if the RAE measured the value-added and not just the output - to realise that the results are cooked from the outset.

There are some glitches in the process of course, but the correlation between funding last time to funding this time would look contrived even if it were not.

Given that it is going to be difficult - at least in the case of the Higher Education Funding Council for England - to introduce greater selectivity into the next RAE, the main reward for the staff in departments with high research ratings over the next four years is greater anxiety.

The main reward for their institutions is a better public profile. So what is the great attraction for those academics who are now advocating financial rewards for departments which score highly in the assessment of teaching?

Well, it is certainly better than the normal higher education reward for success - more work - and even better than that other reward - more students.

But do we really want to introduce a system that permits the public at large to be conned into believing that the reductions in funding for teaching are really to do with selectivity rather than cuts and more cuts?

It would not be unreasonable for lecturers to support financial rewards for excellent ratings in teaching assessments if those rewards went to the lecturers.

However, the history of the past 20 years has shown that the reward for the big rise in lecturer productivity has been a real and relative cut in salaries by some 20 per cent or more.

It is time that they should realise that chasing "success" at the expense of "rival" institutions, while the total pool of resources remains the same, is, and has been, a game that lecturers should not want to play.

Tony Pointon is national adviser to the Association of University and College Lecturers.

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