Set free to do the job

June 25, 2004

Government constraints stymie useful work, so Alan Smithers is delighted to go independent

The Centre for Education and Employment Research is moving to Buckingham University. It is not just that it is a delightful campus in a delightful town - it offers freedom and flexibility as an independent university.

British universities have become overreliant on taxpayers' money. Quite rightly, the government wants to ensure that this is spent wisely. But in recent years it has taken to behaving like a monopoly customer bullying its suppliers rather in the manner of an aggressive supermarket. Its interference in admissions policies, its distortion of research through the research assessment exercises and the crushing bureaucracy of quality assurance are but three examples.

My own field, education, has suffered particularly badly. It is a practical subject whose raison d'être is to improve education. This much is obvious, but to receive money from the government, university education departments are having to pretend they are engaging in something like physics.

Education patently is not physics. Physics studies the relatively enduring inanimate natural world. It makes sense to lodge the measurements that have been made in journals, where they are available over the years to other researchers. Theories lead to cumulative understanding. Researchers have proved themselves through first degrees, doctorates and post-doc experience, and there is a consensus that makes peer review possible.

Crucially, the evidence gathered is strong enough to overturn what people would prefer to believe, as with the Sun going round the Earth.

In contrast, education researches a policy-constructed world that can change rapidly. Papers in academic journals have often lost their usefulness by the time they are printed and, in any case, the audience is mainly not other researchers, but teachers and policy-makers. The evidence gathered is rarely strong enough to cause people to change their views.

Expert teachers recruited because of their skills are treated as second class unless they engage in the - often quirky - theory-building that leads to papers. People who cannot see that they are barking up the wrong paradigm sit in judgement on those who can see clearly that something is seriously wrong.

Universities maintained by government money have become increasingly unable to handle the contradiction. Some, like Liverpool, have simply withdrawn from teacher training, ending more than 100 years of service to schools education. Others are playing the RAE game for all they are worth, carrying out mock exercises to ensure that sufficient papers are being published in the right journals at the right time, that enough bids are being made to the research councils, that the requisite number of honours have been sought. People are shunted around to maximise the returns, and those who are scholars or have particular practical expertise rather than being determined paper-writers are likely to find themselves branded as non-RAE-compliant.

This is bad enough when it is consistent with the purposes of the endeavour, but in practical subjects such as education, law, dentistry and business, it is disastrous. Perversely, the very attempts to ensure value for money are resulting in a lot of it being wasted.

The Centre for Education and Employment Research has been built on a clear conception of what educational research can and cannot do. It takes as its main task the accurate description of the current state of education, and it makes its evidence immediately available to practitioners and policy-makers through rapid publication. Its worth and quality are constantly tested by the need to seek grants and commissions, and fortunately many have been awarded. It has been able to maintain its objectivity in a value-laden field by having a plurality of funders.

But working in the maintained sector of higher education has become an increasing constraint. We are, therefore, delighted to be able to help build a new education department in a truly independent university.

Education is a practical subject; it is now for us to put this further into practice.

Alan Smithers is director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research, which is currently at Liverpool University.

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