Part-timers fill lecturing gap

November 10, 1995

Huw Richards, in the last of our series on the Research Assessment Exercise, looks at its impact on teaching Unholy alliance. Gruesome twosome. Call them what you like - and academics are an inventive lot - but there is little doubt that quality assessment and research assessment, impacting on the twin core functions of academic life, have changed universities immensely over the past few years.

Ask Graeme Davies, returned to the ranks of the vice chancellors after four years running the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the change he most notices and he says "quality in teaching and the management of research are much higher up the agenda".

But for all the sound and fury over quality, there is no doubt that the greater impact is made by research assessment - if only because it has been going much longer and has a direct impact on institutional funding. Alan Jenkins, professor in the Educational Methods Unit at Oxford Brookes University, applied this hypothesis to 14 geography departments and came up with resounding agreement. "The RAE has had significant and largely negative impacts on the organisation of teaching, the priority given to teaching and perhaps on aspects of teaching quality in these 14 geography departments. By comparison the TQA has made little or no impact."

Teaching quality might in itself be seen as one of the consequences of research assessment. As early as the late 1980s subject groups like the History in the Universities Defence Group were pointing to the unbalancing effect of assessing only research and calling, by implication at least, for a parallel process to restore emphasis on teaching.

Professor Jenkins is not arguing that increasing emphasis on research is purely RAE-driven - noting that existing trends were in that direction anyway. But, as one respondent told him: "If more staff spend more time on research, something has to give."

Geoffrey Robinson of Leicester University, co-director of a Teaching and Learning Technology Project programme in geography, an initiative funded by HEFCE, has pointed to "several withdrawals from the consortium under instructions from heads of department to divert their attention to RAE relevant activities. This is echoed by virtually all TLTP projects".

While TLTP projects are intended to develop methods of teaching to benefit future students, those already in the system are being affected. Virtually all of Professor Jenkins' respondents point to an increase in part-time teachers, particularly for first-year students. As one put it: "The quality of teaching may not be worse, but the student experiences a less integrated approach and also finds it more difficult to deal with queries or problems on course organisation."

Hugh Willmott, professor of accounting at Manchester School of Management, argues that this is part of a process of "commodification" of universities, in which the individual academic is regarded purely as a productive agent. "The changes invite and reward academics who willingly restrict their work to duties and activities that provide the greatest measurable, visible output for the lowest risk and least effort."

And there is no shortage of academics willing to point to a loss of collegiality. One of Professor Jenkins's geographers points to "less concern to equalise teaching loads" as highly-rated researchers are relieved of other duties. Iwan Williams, professor of astronomy at Queen Mary Westfield College, detects increasing secrecy and resistance to collaborative work. Paul Heywood, professor of politics at Nottingham University, fears "the atomisation of talent. It is important that a department works as a collectivity. Transfer market activity may easily backfire if it doesn't".

Professor Willmott believes managerial control over the individual academic has been reinforced, a conclusion accepted by his fellow professor of accounting, Mike Power of the London School of Economics. "There is little doubt that it has increased managers' leverage, and this might be argued to be justifiable. But you have to ask whether it is worthwhile to make people do research when they don't want to. A lot of research is being done simply in order to advance careers."

Vice chancellors tend to be less impressed by the view that RAE serves management, and not only for "they would, wouldn't they" reasons. Few universities can operate like Thames Valley, which passes its modest research allocations directly to the department which earned them. Almost all top-slice, and find themselves under pressure from departments, with the low-rated seeking funds to build them up and the high-scoring bent on maintaining their status.

Ron Johnston, former vice chancellor of Essex University, is a firm supporter of transparency but points to the problems that it creates for recipient institutions: "Every department knows exactly how much it and every other department has 'earned'. And if they feel they are being unfairly treated you'll soon hear from their learned societies, telling you how much better other institutions are treating that subject area."

So is everyone playing the RAE game? Most academics and their institutions clearly are - the institutions in particular have little option. But, as Professor Willmott notes, "there are always people who resist systems" - and in some cases apply game-playing skills not to working the system, but ensuring it has as little impact on their work as possible.

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