Scandal of postgrad army

September 15, 1995

Countdown to the research assessment exercise: four academics express their reservations.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England's submission to the Secretary of State on the development of higher education outlined a diversity of institutional roles, clearly distinguishing between the research elite and others. In our view, many of the council's policies, in particular the funding arrangements of the forthcoming research assessment exercise, are encouraging institutional conformity and undermining teaching quality.

Crudely, institutional funding, status and career advancement follow research excellence. Little can be gained by paying attention to teaching. Many universities still receive most of their income from teaching. Success in improving cost effectiveness in teaching has been rewarded with dramatic cuts in the unit of resource while the only potential reward for doing well in the council's teaching quality assessment exercise is the dubious benefit of yet more students. By contrast, being successful in the research assessment exercise brings significant financial rewards.

We have researched staff views on the impact of the research exercise and have identified three main problem areas.

First, it is clear that an increasing proportion of teaching is being undertaken by a growing underclass of poorly paid and inadequately supported postgraduates and part-timers, brought in with research money to free tenured staff to do research. The student experience becomes more fragmented with limited tutor support, particularly in the vital first year.

Second, in a context where many staff and students are facing the difficulties of increasing class size and going modular, there is a reluctance, in the face of research pressure, to devote adequate staff time to fundamental course development. We have evidence that staff, particularly in departments with high research ratings, are being withdrawn from the expensive Teaching and Learning Technology Programme and lecturers are being withdrawn from writing student textbooks. Yet as we move into a mass higher education system with much higher student-staff ratios these are precisely the sort of materials the system requires.

Third, while the rhetoric is for institutional diversity, at an individual level almost all the rewards are for research. Few institutions take teaching seriously in promotion decisions or even in appointments. There are more "research only" contracts with high salaries and limited teaching for star researchers, and higher teaching loads for the rest. The Higher Education Quality Council's 1994 report Learning from Audit reported on the lack of progress in promoting excellent teachers in the old universities and the swing towards research in the new universities. The funding council needs to recognise that its funding and review mechanisms have fostered a culture which has reoriented academic behaviour in directions the council cannot possibly have intended.

A frequent response to the argument that an excessive research orientation damages students is to argue that good researchers make the best teachers. In fact, research shows that excellent researchers are no more likely to be excellent teachers than are poor researchers. Teaching and research are largely unrelated domains directly competing for time and attention, as any hard-pressed lecturer could tell any policy-maker prepared to listen. A research orientation within departments or institutions can, however, be damaging to learning. Astin's comprehensive study of more than 200 US institutions, What Matters in College, concluded that "a college whose faculty is research-oriented increases student dissatisfaction and impacts negatively on most measures of cognitive and affective development".

It is true that judgements about the quality of teaching have tended to follow research ratings, though there are also departments whose teaching has been rated excellent that have no research profile as well as research-oriented departments with highly criticised teaching. It is also clear that the playing field is not level: better libraries and other consequences of long-standing better funding can have a halo effect on judgements of teaching. Noel Entwistle's analysis of Teaching Quality Assessment reports in Scotland found that "excellent" ratings had been regularly awarded to (traditionally well-funded) top research departments where little or no excellent teaching was reported and even where the only comments about the teaching were negative.

The funding council has to realise that in attempting to improve research quality, it is threatening teaching quality and discouraging institutions from diversifying to meet national needs. In the US there has been strong public and government criticism of higher education for neglecting teaching and emphasising discovery research.

Changes are required at both national and institutional levels to avoid the American experience. At a national level, there needs to be an acceptance that discovery research is a minority activity. The distracting and wasteful competition for funding for this kind of research needs therefore to be restricted instead of operating within a system the consequence of which has been to spread research activity much wider and dilute its quality. Every institution needs to be funded adequately to support all its staff to undertake the scholarship necessary for well-informed teaching instead of, in effect, providing better teaching facilities for institutions identified as research-oriented.

At an institutional level, there needs to be a recasting of the appointment, training, probation, tenure and promotion systems so as to attract, develop, keep and reward those staff who contribute in diverse ways to achieving institutional missions, instead of rewarding one type of achievement above all others regardless of its institutional relevance or priority.

Professor Alan Jenkins is a member of the Educational Methods Unit and Professor Graham Gibbs is head of the Oxford Centre for Staff Development at Oxford Brookes University.

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