One half of double act

February 15, 2002

The RAE has no future unless it is modified to reconnect research to teaching, argues Roger Brown.

There appears to be a near universal view that the 2001 research assessment exercise will be the last of its kind, and that things cannot go on as before, with an ever more intensive assessment process leading to ever more marginal transfers of funds on the basis of ever more dubious criteria. Can, for example, such a high proportion of UK university research really be "world class"? This provides an opportunity for a fundamental rethink about how university research should be funded.

The starting point for such a rethink might be to consider what part research should play in higher education: whether staff research benefits student education and if so how?

The idea that staff research is integral to student learning is deeply embedded in higher education. Yet the condition on which staff research was legitimised was that it should be relevant to the university curriculum and should underpin student learning. Why else should research be conducted in universities at all?

However, as Claudius Gellert, Reading University's professor of education, says: "Academic research became a single-minded, almost fanatical commitment to the advancement of knowledge, one that excluded philosophy, practical applications and any idea of education for life." This is particularly ironic in view of the evidence from the Transparency Review and elsewhere that in virtually every institution research is subsidised from resources obtained for other purposes.

What has happened is that over time research and teaching have become separated. To quote the 1995 report of the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University : "Almost without realising it, research universities find themselves in the last half of the century operating large, often huge and extended undergraduate programmes as though they are sideshows to the main event. The numbers are there but the intention is elsewhere."

While the RAE has not caused this, it has certainly reinforced it. How then might research and teaching be reconnected?

One option would be to abandon selective assessments such as the RAE and rely on the institutions to maintain the quality of their research, with the arrangements being audited from time to time. If the quality of research has been improved by the RAE by as much as its advocates suggest, why do we need any more?

If, moreover, staff research is so beneficial to student education, why should the bulk of research funding be concentrated in so few universities? Does this not mean condemning the majority of students to a second-class education? The RAE underpins the current hierarchy across UK higher education, something that sits oddly alongside the government's wish to have a diverse and accessible higher education system.

Another, and possibly more realistic, approach is to retain the RAE but to modify it. Its original purpose was to achieve rationalisation in areas of science and technology where the cost of research was high. But in many subjects research is an individual matter, where the costs and difficulties of acquiring information are falling. Why not confine the RAE to those subject areas where concentration is justified on grounds of cost or the need to strengthen disciplinary research capacity? Other forms of quality assurance could be applied to other areas.

The third option is to retain the RAE but to link the funding that comes with it to the reason for having research in universities in the first place. There are various ways in which staff research can be used to support student learning, but at present institutions have little incentive to focus their efforts on this, as opposed to maximising their RAE scores. Obliging them to show how the funding will be used to improve teaching, and carrying out periodic audits to test if this is the case, would get the whole system back on track.

Roger Brown is principal of Southampton Institute.

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