New gold fuels old battles

February 10, 1995

Poor relations: Stephen Court says the 'new' universities are condemned to the slow lane in research. The deadline passed at the end of January for responding to the Government's review of higher education. Mandarins at the Department for Education are now sifting through the evidence submitted by those with a stake in Britain's universities. From the review, Education Secretary Gillian Shephard is hoping to determine the purpose, size and shape of British higher education to the year 2000 and beyond.

The official binary divide between the "old" universities and the polytechnics may have gone. But so far as the future shape of higher education is concerned, a picture is already emerging, regardless of the review. And there is an increasing sense that a "gold standard" is evolving for comparing one institution with another.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is adamant in denying it is imposing a common benchmark through its assessment of teaching quality. But an examination of the council's methodology suggests a gold standard does exist, even if unintentionally.

The trail begins with the assessment exercise which determines the distribution of research funding from the funding councils. Ninety-four per cent of that funding (the QR component in council terminology) is allocated on the basis of judgements of the quality of research produced by a particular "unit of assessment" (roughly equivalent to a department). Those judgements are made against the "norms" of national and international excellence - not criteria put forward by the institution concerned.

An analysis of the 191 "old" and "new" institutions graded in both the 1992 research assessment exercise and the first round of subject-level teaching quality assessment by HEFCE in 1993/94 (of law, history, chemistry and mechanical engineering) shows a close link between performing well in research and getting a good rating in the teaching quality assessment.

Six per cent of the new universities were graded excellent for teaching, and 94 per cent were graded satisfactory. Of the old universities, 39 per cent were graded excellent, and 61 per cent were graded satisfactory. This is in line with the conclusion of the Barnett report last year into quality assessment: "That most of the excellent ratings have so far been awarded to older universities suggests both that a cross-institutional set of criteria is in place and that it favours one sub-group of institutions."

On a scale from 1 (research of barely any national excellence) to 5 (research of international excellence), the average QR grading of excellent-rated "units of assessment" in old universities was 4.1. The average for excellent-rated new universities was 1.5. Of the 69 new universities in this analysis, none scored higher than research grade 3 (some evidence of international excellence). Fifty-two per cent of new university departments were given grade 1, which, when translated into the council's funding formula, means they do not qualify for QR money.

On this evidence, although so far only on the basis of four subjects, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that excellence in research and teaching go hand in hand. Under the current funding regime, the better you perform in research assessment, the more QR funding you get. The more funding you receive, the better your research and teaching are likely to be.

The best individual performers so far in terms of departments receiving research grade 5 and subjects receiving teaching quality excellent are all "old" institutions: Cambridge (three subjects); LSE, Oxford, and King's College, London (two subjects); Sheffield, Birmingham, Durham, Imperial College, Nottingham, Southampton and University College, London (one subject).

It is not surprising that the institutions in the "old" sector far outstrip the former polytechnics in the amount of research funding as a proportion of funding council grant and tuition fees (THES Dec 23). The only consolation for many new universities is a share in the Pounds 16.9m - or 2.2 per cent of research funding - given as "DevR" to promote research in the "new" sector.

The data on rank order is underlined by the self-appointed network of informal alliances recently formed among the old universities, such as the Russell Group (about 15 large universities including Oxford and Cambridge), and the 94 Group (slightly smaller institutions, with a high research profile), with the goal of protecting their status and funding - particularly in research.

The pressure on providers of higher education to conform to a common standard has increased since last April, when former education secretary John Patten urged the universities' Higher Education Quality Council to "place more emphasis on broad comparability in the standards of degrees".

Higher education minister Tim Boswell last December repeated the Government's challenge to HEFCE and the academic community to find a way of assessment that combined accountability and autonomy. The concern among academics is that the difficulty - perhaps impossibility - of finding the right quality assurance formula will create a vacuum which a league table-based gold standard will conveniently fill.

This might make choices easier for funders and for prospective students, especially those from overseas. But the cost would be in terms of academic autonomy and diversity - and the quality of teaching which is starved of a research input. It would also increase the fragmentation already present, and the sense of an academic community not, in John Major's words, at ease with itself.

Solutions inevitably point to more "new" money being made available, to increase DevR and strengthen the external examiner system. More fundamental changes, such as introducing a criterion-referenced element into research assessment, and helping more research grade 1 departments on to the QR funding ladder, would need to be carefully weighed against the benefits of concentrated research funding.

The current review is faced with a dilemma. Keeping to the research gold standard will maintain a relatively stable and workable funding regime. But on the evidence arising from the results so far of teaching and research quality assessment, many of the new universities are likely to be condemned to life in the slow lane.

Stephen Court is a research officer for the Association of University Teachers, writing in a personal capacity. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect AUT policy.

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