Losers in a numbers game

December 26, 1997

AS A lecturer in a 2-rated department trying to pull itself up on the crumbs of development money from the last research assessment exercise, it was with interest that I spent time recently visiting a 4-rated department.

Apart from some technical gadgetry for one or two members of staff and a little more technical support, the departments differed little. The main difference, I suspect, is in the staff time available for research. Lecturers at Luton teach three times the number of students with less than three times the staff. This imbalance has been compounded by the division of psychology departments into B and D teaching bands.

Given that departments that did well in the RAE will tend to have more specialist kit for their staff research, it will come as no surprise to find that the grade 4 department was awarded band B, while lower rated departments fared less well. It thus seems that departments that are already being deprived of legitimate funds for their research (bearing in mind that a 2 signifies up to half the work being done being of national significance) are now on a shoestring expected to teach large numbers of undergraduates the fundamentals of a scientific discipline.

These undergraduates, often from non-traditional backgrounds, are expected to go out into the general economy and provide for our future prosperity. In recognition of this, universities such as mine struggle to equip these students with the transferable skills they will need, such as computer literacy or programming.

Students in higher ranking departments on the other hand can look forward to more esoteric challenges such as building artificial cockroaches with half the ability of their natural counterparts.

Relating this to the recent debate in The THES, I have to say that if there is a "real" world, most of British higher education is located firmly on the wrong side of the looking glass.

If recreating the divisions of two-tier secondary education in our universities is supposed to be our vision for the future, then I for one will be happy to see Microsoft with degree-awarding powers.

Tony Ward

Senior lecturer in psychology University of Luton

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