Ministers to review teaching only plan

March 19, 2004

Ministers are reconsidering white-paper plans to create teaching-only universities after the proposals were rejected by existing universities on the grounds that they threaten the link between teaching and research.

Higher education minister Alan Johnson confirmed this week that he would "carefully consider" responses from a consultation on teaching-only institutions before making a final decision on how to proceed.

Mr Johnson said: "The new criteria will shape the future of the university sector over the rest of the decade, and I want to ensure that we get them right."

At present, the "university" title is used only by institutions with the power to award both taught degrees and higher research degrees.

But in its January 2003 white paper, the Department for Education and Skills said it was not "necessary to be active in cutting-edge research to be an excellent teacher".

It proposed changing the system to allow institutions with only taught-degree awarding powers to call themselves universities. This would "send an important signal about the importance of teaching and about the benefits for some of focusing their efforts on teaching well", it said.

The paper also outlined plans to make it easier for organisations "outside the university sector" to obtain taught-degree awarding powers - and when detailed proposals were finally made, the requirement that staff must be engaged in research was removed.

Responses to a consultation exercise on the plans, published this week, reveal widespread opposition.

Although it does not report the responses on the title plans in detail, the DFES report says that "universities were generally concerned about the future 'teaching-only' universities, as it was felt that the proposals failed to recognise a fundamental link between teaching and research.

"Many felt there was a need for an adequate research environment and research activity to feed into honour-degree level learning and teaching.

There were concerns that decoupling teaching and research would impact negatively on the perception of UK universities, particularly overseas."

The consultation also reveals widespread opposition to plans to issue degree-awarding powers for a six-year period only, and to renew them after a further quality audit.

Some 61 per cent of respondents opposed the renewal plan, with only 23 per cent agreeing. Colleges, in particular, thought it would cause instability and uncertainty, damage recruitment and create a two-tier system, with some institutions holding degree-awarding powers in perpetuity and others not.

In a Commons statement this week, Mr Johnson said the six-year deadline would be further reviewed in a new discussion paper.

Respondents were also split on plans to allow specialist institutions to apply for the university title. Some 48 per cent said single-subject specialists should be eligible for the title, with 40 per cent disagreeing.

There was less enthusiasm for a proposal to open the gates to much smaller organisations to call themselves universities, by dropping the minimum student number requirement.

While 53 per cent said the requirement for 4,000 full-time equivalent students should stay, 32 per cent said the level was too high.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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