Misleading search for twelve first-division players

January 3, 1997

John Brooks argues that all universities must decide how best to balance the teaching research divide

The great strength of the higher education system is its ability to evolve to meet both national and regional needs. To restrict research activity by over-concentration in elite universities would be disastrous.

Universities must be able to determine their own research objectives, to continue to enrich undergraduate education through direct research experience, to provide opportunities for staff development in research and to support the economic and technological development of their regions through strategic partnerships.

What are the implications of a super league of 12 first-division universities? Is this just another step in the natural evolution of higher education or something more sinister? The evidence from the recent research assessment exercise shows that in many traditional subjects the blue-skies basic research of international standing is indeed concentrated in a small number of universities. But it is less clear which are the six or 12 elite universities with overall research strength.

The RAE also demonstrated that there exists not only a strong desire to engage in research but also a high level of competence in research of international quality in many institutions. Any comparison must examine universities' mission, their history of development and, crucially, the relevance of their research activity to the wider purpose of the university.

The present dual-funding system already responds to an evaluation of research excellence in a highly selective way. However, the RAE allows judgements to be made of small research teams, or even of individual researchers, against national and international standards. These judgements must continue to be made independently of the origin and background of the university. Universities engage in research for three reasons: * to underpin high-quality teaching on undergraduate and postgraduate courses

* to generate new knowledge

* to enable their academic staff to develop in their chosen subject.

Much of the debate about greater research concentration has focused on blue-skies basic research in traditional subjects and is based on outdated research models. Any proposals about a future research strategy must consider other types of research, emerging subject areas, and the increasingly global nature of new knowledge. Take for example the balance between blue-skies research and the research that underpins professional practice. There is a great tradition of investment in basic research in science but what priority should be placed on research into science education? If we took a long-term view then we would invest in research that will support our next generation of teachers and scientists. There are many similar examples in computer science and information technology, economics and management, medicine and professions allied to medicine. Many universities have developed to meet professional needs and have encouraged appropriate research. The spectrum of basic, strategic and applied research allows universities to position their research activities to meet national and regional needs.

International excellence in basic research remains the primary aim of many universities, and yet one must question its further prioritisation.

The wider benefits of research in science, engineering and technology were identified in the White Paper Realising Our Potential (1993), and led to a set of national priorities that brought together users of research with providers - namely universities. In many professional areas the boundaries between research, technology transfer and training are blurred and many universities provide all of these needs, aiding the technological and economic regeneration of their region.

The final critical issue is the relationship between teaching and research. The linkage between the processes involved in the creation of new knowledge and its communication through teaching remains central to university education. Teaching and learning within an environment that is enriched by a research culture is valued by students and staff, and is increasingly demanded by professional bodies through their accreditation criteria. Academics should bring their first-hand research and professional experience to both the development of the curriculum and its delivery.

It is equally important that the research is appropriate to the university's mission and curriculum. It is the development of the individual academic that determines how effective the research is. The opportunity to engage in appropriate research is critically important for many academics' careers.

Institutional autonomy must allow universities to determine the balance of their activities.

John S. Brooks is assistant principal, research and development, Sheffield Hallam University.

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