One-trick pony won't win race

November 12, 2004

RAE mania holds back the UK in World University Rankings, insists Chris Barnard.

Now hardly seems an auspicious time to approve of things American. Neither does one want to endorse yet another tier of the league table race that has so roundly hijacked educational life, higher and otherwise.

But a point made by Charles Vest in his analysis of why US institutions dominate a global league table of universities (Opinion, November 5) is worth some hard reflection.

It concerns the relationship between research and teaching, still ostensibly the twin raisons d'être of UK higher education.

Speaking of the top echelons of the US system, Vest states that "our research universities weave together teaching and research in ways that bring freshness, intensity and renewal to both activities". Would that such a claim could be made for the UK's "research-led" equivalents.

Goggling like rabbits in the headlamps of the research assessment exercise, our institutions have allowed research and teaching to occupy almost exclusive parallel universes.

And since we can apparently live in only one universe at a time, the RAE has ensured that the hands-down winner is research.

This is rapidly becoming a root-and-branch separation. As anyone who has sat on appointments panels knows, RAE performance indicators are a ruthless yardstick for selecting candidates.

Two problems follow. First, aspects of a given field that attract the most research income are frequently specialised and expensive and do not fit coherently into broad undergraduate courses.

Second, people appointed on the basis of their RAE worthiness often have minimal interest in teaching. They either do what they have to grudgingly or seek a research fellowship that allows them to pass it all on to a teaching replacement.

There are other, more insidious, consequences.

High-profile research appointments make demands on space. Many institutions seem only too happy to "upgrade" teaching laboratories and seminar rooms to accommodate their latest cash cow or house an offshoot of ever-metastasising administration.

Furthermore, as institutions head towards a full-cost recovery culture for research, departmental budgets are becoming increasingly pushed to cover activities that do not have direct grant support and overheads.

Teaching and training resources are particularly vulnerable. The "hotel" charges for animal-based teaching in biological science departments illustrate this perfectly. One modest final-year project I know of cost about £100 two years ago. Now, it costs more than £2,000.

Teaching is as important as any number of star players in the research success of UK universities. It is where future stars are nurtured. The experience of exciting frontline research is the obvious "added value" that research-led universities can offer to already highly qualified intakes.

The Quality Assurance Agency is impotent. It simply reinforces the research-teaching divide by acting like a longer-trousered version of Ofsted.

The assessment system should legislate for an inclusive yardstick of scholarship. It should embrace a marriage between research and teaching that nurtures the future and pays more than lip service to teaching in shaping the strategy and staffing policy of departments and institutions.

UK universities may then get a serious sniff at challenging the US at the top of the premier league.

Chris Barnard is professor of animal behaviour at Nottingham University. He writes in a personal capacity.

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