Pros and cons of a super league

January 3, 1997

Frank Webster, below, believes Britain would benefit from creating a cluster of research universities to which 5-star departments could transfer.

There are more than 100 higher education institutions in Britain that boast the word university somewhere in their titles. They cater for a million students, from mature returners who missed out to 18-year-olds with 30-plus points at A level. Despite this diversity, the fiction persists that Britain has a unitary higher education system. This is expressed in two assertions: that all degree programmes are of the same standard; and that teaching must be underpinned by the research involvement of staff.

The notion of there being a unified system is fair to no one, least of all to our students. It is believed by no one outside academe. The fiction of a unitary system poisons the entire system by imposing expectations on staff for which undergraduates have to pay.

Perhaps the main way this happens is in research. All universities now compete for research funds on the basis of scores attained in periodic research assessment exercises. The ex-polytechnics quite rightly complained about the assumptions of these exercises, but scarcely anyone challenged the process. Engagement in the competition was presupposed to be a good thing because university teaching supposedly benefits from staff doing research. Ipso facto, if a university is any good, then it will be a research-active institution.

To the new universities the RAE offered the prospect of extral funding. Since the unit of resource from students is constantly being denuded, the marginal funds that come from the RAE take on a disproportionate significance. One is reminded of Mr Micawber's homily on the crucial difference that 6d either side of Pounds 1 makes between happiness and misery.

The 1996 RAE demonstrated nothing if not that research excellence is concentrated in a small number of elite institutions. The top dozen or so universities get the lion's share of the funding, while the leftovers fall to a host of also-rans.

The process corrupts the entire system of higher education by encouraging all to participate in research. This participation is frequently at the expense of undergraduates, for whom the bulk of university funding is intended.

Research evidence from the United States shows a negative correlation between the research-orientation of the university and students' satisfaction with the teaching they receive. While many university teachers here in Britain identify with and aspire to combining research and teaching, there is little evidence that undergraduate students benefit from or are even aware of the research conducted by their teachers.

What undergraduates value above all from staff, who of course must be scholarly and committed, is time - and time is the last thing they will get from research-active staff who are preoccupied with their latest book.

The alleged indivisibility of teaching and research in a university is new, scarcely dating beyond a few decades in this country. Cardinal Newman was emphatic in The Idea of a University (1853) that a university was for teaching students, not for conducting research that was more appropriately located outside the university.

Yet the university system has gone research-mad in recent years. In the process it has taken us further away from our students. One cannot be doing very much research if one's main concern is with teaching, so not surprisingly we find the most research active staff teaching the least. This has also led to divisions between researchers and teachers, with the latter regarded as inferior. On the one hand, this is being established by the de facto formation of a core of research universities, and, on the other, it is being developed in other institutions where research active staff are granted fewer teaching and administrative responsibilities. The hierarchical ranking of research over teaching is palpable. Research has an aura of originality, of being state-of-the-art but in truth much of it is routine and dull, destined for recondite journals. It has benefited publishers who are assured a profit on print runs of journals as small as 400, and where else would publishers find authors lining up to write virtually for free?

Some of the research may be of relevance to outside agencies and able to attract external funding. This gives it a special appeal to cash-strapped university managers, but it does not mean the standard of such research is superior to the intellectual level of effective teaching. In my own area of social science, a great deal of research is ephemeral. Much survey research and opinion analysis could just as effectively be undertaken outside the university by organisations such as MORI.

Cardinal Newman's recommendation that research be banished from academe finds some support in the plethora of think-tanks and research institutes in large corporations (IBM boasts eight proprietary campuses) and in bodies such as Demos and the Institute for Economic Affairs. I have nothing against these organisations except their parasitism on the university where they can find academics willing to participate on the cheap because they are prepared to use the income they receive from undergraduates to subsidise extra-curricular research activities.

The Government should grasp the bull by the horns and designate a cluster of universities as research centres. Those subject areas that have gained 5s and 5 stars outside the top dozen might be transferred to such universities if staff so desire. These institutions would be highly esteemed, appropriately acknowledged for their research excellence. They might also admit undergraduates where their teaching has been judged to have reached a given quality.

This is not aceptance of the creation of second-class institutions but a demand that we rethink the prioritisation of research in the higher education system. It is not a call for cheap teaching in inferior universities. Scholarship should be prioritised because it supports effective teaching, leads to publication and ensures teachers are familiar with the literature of their fields. My call is for a refusal of the fiction of a unitary university system. We are already differentiated. We must acknowledge this in terms of the designation of particular universities to particular tasks. Differentiation should be recognised in terms of teaching and the quality of that teaching. There would be advantage to already privileged institutions in such procedures for a period, but over time explicit recognition of a differentiated university system should lead to top-ranked teaching universities that are not simultaneously top of the research tree. Already the teaching quality assessment exercises, flawed though they may have been, have encouraged this trend. These should be refined and tied in to a sliding scale of funding, just as happens in the RAEs. That would be more honest than the alleged unitary system we have. It would recognise, formalise and reward the highly differentiated system of higher education that everyone but those involved openly acknowledge we have at present.

Frank Webster is a sociology professor at Oxford Brookes University.

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