Opinion: The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for higher education

Chris Higgins and Anthony Forster argue that we must stop expecting all universities to deliver on both research and teaching

January 19, 2010

What is the higher education sector for and what should it look like? In the current economic climate, no university can take public funding for granted, yet the most critical strategic questions are not being openly debated.

Higher education in the UK went through a transformation when the former polytechnics became universities. Unprecedented levels of state funding have helped universities to flourish and the sector has expanded and is now teaching 40 per cent of school-leavers. Significant progress has been made in removing barriers to access: our student body is more diverse and social mobility has improved. All this is extremely positive. However, it has grown incrementally, often in response to individual funding initiatives, rather than strategically.

University of Bath vice-chancellor Glynis Breakwell has argued that universities should stop assuming that everybody has to do a bit of everything. We agree, and feel that universities have been deterred from specialising in what they can be truly excellent at, unhelpfully leading to a single hierarchy of universities perpetuated by league tables.

Challenges to public funding now make this approach unsustainable. There is a distracting focus on a range of proxy issues: what the fee cap should rise to; how research money should be concentrated; how teaching funding should be allocated; and whether or not a 2:1 from Oxbridge is the equivalent of a 2:1 from Poppleton. All these issues avoid the wider questions. Only a clear vision as to the size and purpose of the sector will enable the academy to retain its vitality and emerge from any changes in government funding as a sustainable sector.

Higher education is for both research and education. But we need to dispel a number of myths, for example that all universities need to deliver both research and teaching. We need to put aside the pretence that all teaching must be research-led in order to be excellent. For some subjects, research-led teaching is necessary and integral to learning outcomes. But in other subjects, particularly those that are vocational, what is needed is professionally oriented high-quality teaching and training. Many universities excel in different types of teaching and training despite an absence of significant research activity and we need to recognise this openly.

We also need to address the cost base for different types of teaching. Currently the unit of resource per student is essentially the same for all types of teaching, even where the cost base is very different. We differentiate research funding according to cost base, so why not teaching funds also? Funding aligned to real costs would enable the UK to educate more students more appropriately than through a uniform funding regime.

Acting University of East London vice-chancellor Deian Hopkin has argued that we should not perpetuate one model of education, but support a spectrum. We agree that there should not be a single hierarchy of universities, but suggest that the number of sustainable models is limited.

We propose that the UK needs three broad types of universities: research-intensive universities in which education is research-led and where graduate research schools with critical mass can best flourish; universities focused on economic and social environments (regional and national) with outstanding vocational and professional teaching, awarding professional doctorates; and local community college-style universities delivering vocational training, supported by a national system of “articulation” to courses at other universities.

We further argue that no one model is more or less important than another for the UK, and that within any one model, excellence should be supported by a higher proportion of government funding. The competition this would engender would sustain the quality of education in the UK that rightly makes it the envy of the world. Being more explicit about the models and more effective in targeting state funding would give better value for money than the current “one-size-fits-all” approach, and would prevent a drift towards the lowest common denominator at the cost of excellence. If we fail to grasp this nettle we may witness not just the passing of individual universities, but an erosion of the quality of the sector as a whole.

It is a fallacy to think that if we don’t debate these issues funding cuts will somehow be less likely. This article raises difficult issues in order to stimulate a responsible debate. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we do know that a focus on proxy issues is deflecting from the key issue: what is the affordable size and shape of a sustainable sector? To stay silent when the stakes are so high would be a disservice both to the sector and to the UK.

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