Pecking order

January 31, 1997

It is time to initiate debate about the implications of the research assessment exercise for the "new" universities and the hierarchy of values which it is necessarily perpetuating.

As expected, the traditional universities scored more goals than new universities. It might be asserted that their positioning at the top of the league simply reflects their power in determining the rules of the game; theoretically oriented academic research being deemed precious compared with the more applied focus of the new squads. A reasonable observer would, however, be quick to point out the profoundly unfair nature of this contest; new universities tend to be closely aligned with a more local, community focused audience whereas a more universalistic perspective is claimed by the traditional universities for their research.

So long as the universalistic claims for the intrinsic worth of research studies is imposed on "new" universities the latter will never escape poor relative funding. A more just situation would respect the kinds of research associated with them and avoid forcing them to conform a priori to orthodox academic criteria.

Consensus remains elusive about the relative contribution of one type of research over the other in relation to our national social and economic wellbeing: is there any research evidence to support the implied argument of the funding bodies that academic research is massively greater in its impact or is this a mere ideological premise?

As reflective thinkers perhaps we should all consider the proposition that such an epistemological duality afflicting higher education is being sustained by a deeper and unacknowledged commitment to a degenerative European social class structure. Are we really saying that "new" universities are to be less well-resourced because of their involvement with "working-class" research which entails that to achieve viable levels of funding we must abandon our roots and become "middle- class"?

The parallels with the nature of school provision will not escape educationists; at present it looks as though the university sector is beginning to mimic the early development of segregated secondary state schooling with all the implications that this appears to be already implying for employment opportunities. The "comprehensive" ideal will not be idealised in its university form until those in charge become more sympathetic to a differentiated conception of research.

Chris Holligan, faculty of education, University of Paisley

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