Loosen up, ministers

September 19, 2003

We can stick to the white paper's principles without your meddling, says Rob Cuthbert

To be or not to be research-intensive: that is not the question the government should be posing. It should instead ask how much teaching and research we can afford and how good it is - not where it is done and by whom.

The Future of Higher Education is the best, and the worst, higher education white paper for 30 years. It gets most things right in principle, but too many things wrong in practice. It is best where it expresses social and educational objectives, and worst where it prescribes the nature of teaching, research and their connections, categorises institutions and makes practical proposals that contradict its own principles.

Few would disagree with the principles: investing more; concentrating research infrastructure where necessary; promoting collaboration; strengthening higher education's links with business; reinforcing the value of teaching; expanding through new types of provision; eliminating access inequalities by working with further education and schools; and increasing higher education resources fairly through contributions from those who benefit.

But the practical proposals will not keep UK research competitive or keep researchers competing. They will just encourage them to sit on their research assessment exercise results. The government should not abolish inter-university competition or tell universities what counts as research.

Research is broader than the RAE allows, but the white paper amplifies the RAE halo effect. Research reputation changes fast, applies to units rather than institutions, and cannot be concreted in by defining institutional types. Spreading investment delivers better value for money and allows new centres to grow on merit.

Undermining links between teaching and research is also a bad idea. Such links are vital for institutions, academics, students and research itself.

For institutions, teaching-only universities would debase the currency of UK institutions worldwide. For academics, scholarship and applied research, as well as RAE-recognised thinking, protect a spirit of inquiry and keep them in higher education when other careers offer more material rewards.

For students, teaching-research links raise the quality of teaching and avoid labelling some universities second rate. There are hierarchies of institutional esteem, but they change, and should be allowed to.

Links with teaching are vital for research, which often grows in areas first populated by teachers. Many emerging research areas - such as art and design, or nursing and health - are centred on so-called non-research-intensive universities. Legislation cannot prevent those areas emerging, but it could stunt their growth.

Government policy should also embrace different kinds of first-class university. Higher education is not just for A-level-qualified 18-year-olds in residence on three-year full-time programmes run by single-subject departments. Higher education today is more diverse, more complex and can develop more quickly and responsively than the white paper allows. And it will diversify faster if its unity and internal competitiveness are maintained than if it is stratified on the basis of a backward-looking partial research-only assessment exercise. Stratification would prevent, in future, success stories such as the universities of Warwick and York and insure underperforming institutions against a fall perhaps necessary to reinvigorate them and higher education as a whole.

This "modernising" white paper overvalues the type of old-fashioned higher education that is a minority experience and is least likely to promote social inclusion. Let us envisage Russell Group-like reputations for universities doing something different: a different teaching/research mix; a commitment to social inclusion that does not narrow as reputation rises; a sense of remaining locally rooted and focused on applied problem-solving as well as the development of areas of world-class research; and a belief in widening access to a higher education experience rated first class, not labelled second rate.

Universities respond to government policy but cannot be micro-managed from Whitehall. The government should reiterate the white paper's principles but relax its practical prescriptions, challenging institutions themselves to develop practical solutions to the policy questions. That would make this the best white paper for a generation, command wide support and help to create a different kind of world-class higher education system in the UK.

Rob Cuthbert is deputy vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England and chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education. He writes in a personal capacity.

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