Paying parents take up fight for better teaching

December 4, 1998

Teaching and research are likely to come increasingly into conflict in British universities, at least in those with a heavy concentration of research. Students and their parents are now paying customers. Predictably, they are beginning to wield their consumer power.

At Sheffield, parents and students are protesting at the closure of the earth sciences department for reasons that appear to be connected with improving the university's research assessment ratings (back page). Closing departments is always hard because of the impact on existing students. It is going to be harder now they pay.

At Oxford a parent - anonymous to save his daughter's blushes - is outraged that her tuition is apparently being sacrificed to her tutor's research priorities (letters, page 19). His protest comes as Oxford and Cambridge continue to negotiate to keep additional public money for individual tuition, even if it is paid centrally rather than through the colleges.

There is nothing new about the tension between teaching and research. What is new is that students and parents now feel they have a right to complain. They feel they are paying a lot. Unfortunately the universities are not gaining a lot. Most of the cost to parents is for maintenance and the part which is fees has been deducted from the universities' block grants. Parents pay but universities do not feel grateful.

Extra money for universities comes from research, not teaching. The research assessment exercise, may have done much to identify and develop excellent research departments but it is now skewing attention in universities with research aspirations away from teaching undergraduates. Research teams and institutes where members do not teach - or teach only postgraduates - are increasingly common. Part-time casual labour is used to relieve academic stars of teaching. Staff are moved to alter departments' research profiles, not to enhance their teaching strength. The better the university is at research the greater the impact on undergraduates.

And this will get worse. A string of new Institutes for Enterprise has already been announced and the Competitiveness white paper can be expected to emphasise technology transfer. This will draw more academics out of classrooms.

Meanwhile most students go to university to improve their job prospects, as our survey (pages I-VIII) shows. A recent study at Oxford Brookes (THES, February 6) showed that they are ambivalent about the advantages of their tutors being involved in research: they enjoy the buzz but resent the distraction. Furthermore, today's stress on teaching technique gives students the impression they are owed a type of teaching some academics regard as spoonfeeding.

Against this background of conflicting priorities, the future of the funding councils is apparently under scrutiny. The bureaucracy of further and higher education is cumbersome, intrusive and expensive. Peer review for research is duplicated by funding councils and research councils. The funding councils' research money has manifestly not been enough to maintain the research infrastructure - witness the overwhelming rush of applications to the joint infrastructure fund and the need to increase research councils' contributions to overheads. The RAE is arguably now doing more harm than good. Meanwhile, support for students is uneven and unfair between further and higher education, full and part-time study.

If the councils are eventually to be reshaped, with the legislation that would entail, the opportunity should be taken to consider splitting research and teaching so that we have a peer-reviewed research funding mechanism and a separate agency for supporting students and subsidising courses right across the post-compulsory spectrum. It is not obvious that in a mass system the present arrangements are the most efficient.

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