Ratings drive hits teaching

March 18, 2005

The UK's chief academic watchdog has warned that the rush to chase research ratings and grants is threatening teaching standards in universities.

In an unprecedented move, Peter Williams, the Quality Assurance Agency chief executive, this week added his voice to concerns about the damaging effect of the research assessment exercise.

Mr Williams, usually adopts a neutral line in such wider political debates.

But he used the publication of his agency's annual report to warn of the damage to students' experience that could be caused by the all-consuming battle among academics for research grades and the financial rewards they bring.

He told The Times Higher that the increasingly common practice of transferring research teams between universities in the run-up to the RAE could have a "destabilising effect on teaching capacity".

In his report's foreword, he says: "The opportunities given to students for learning depend, to a considerable extent, on the resources available, human resources as well as physical resources.

"These are coming under increasing pressure, partly from financial constraints, but more from the influence and effect of the forthcoming RAE.

If care is not taken, some higher education institutions may be diverted from their teaching mission in their chase for better RAE grades.

Speaking to The Times Higher in advance of the report's launch this week, Mr Williams said: "It is no good reorganising research in an institution and finding that they've got rid of all the good teachers, or there aren't sufficient teachers left to provide what they've promised.

More than £1 billion in research block grants is distributed by the funding councils each year on the back of departmental ratings secured in the RAE, which next takes place in 2008.

The QAA confirms in its annual report that it received £5 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England last year to carry out quality reviews on the council's behalf - representing half of its income.

Mr Williams avoided criticising the RAE itself, saying only: "That's not for me to do. The RAE is there and institutions will act in a way they believe is in their best interests. But I want to remind them that their best interests include a motivated and satisfied student body."

Rama Thirunamachandran, director of research at Hefce, said the council was working hard to ensure the key university mission of teaching was fully "supported, rewarded and incentivised".

He denied that the RAE was disproportionately diverting universities' attention from their teaching mission. "Globally, research is an important driver for institutions," he said. "Regardless of whether you have an RAE, universities do build their reputations on research."

  • Quality watchdogs had "no confidence" in the academic standards of 15 per cent of all the colleges inspected last year.

    In a report that raises questions about government plans to expand higher education through courses delivered in the further education sector, the Quality Assurance Agency says this week that it has confidence in standards at 85 per cent of the 54 colleges it inspected during 2003-04.

    phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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