Sykes says teaching-only sites will be second-rate institutions

March 14, 2003

Teaching-only universities will give students a second-rate learning experience, the rector of Imperial College London admitted this week.

Sir Richard Sykes, a key supporter and major beneficiary of government moves to concentrate research funding on an elite minority and push some institutions into teaching-only roles, said that he did not believe that "the highest quality of teaching can be delivered by those divorced from active engagement in research".

Speaking at a conference on the government's white paper, organised by solicitors Mills and Reeve, he said: "I am sure that moves to create teaching-only institutions will result in a clearer stratification of higher education than we currently admit to."

Imperial is one of the "big four" research universities that will take a third of Britain's entire research grant next year as funding chiefs concentrate cash.

Ministers are encouraging some institutions to focus on teaching. They insist in the white paper that "it is not necessary to be active in cutting-edge research to be an excellent teacher".

Professor Sykes, a funding council board member, said the policy was right.

"There appears to be agreement that only top-quality work is worth pursuing with vigour - otherwise we might as well read the results of research in the journals available to everyone. While I welcome such thinking, the consequences will not be comfortable for everyone.

"Concentration allows more resources to be devoted to specific research goals, rather than a large number of inadequately resourced projects. This high-powered rifle, rather than blunderbuss, approach is seen as likely to have greater impact in the field of cutting-edge research.

"But giving more to fewer will inevitably mean that some research groups find funding meagre or absent. As you can well imagine, not all are happy.

The concept that some individuals, groups or whole institutions should focus entirely on teaching has raised objections. I have to admit that I have problems in accepting that the highest quality teaching can be delivered by those divorced from active engagement in research."

Professor Sykes' comments came as the Association of University Teachers published findings of a poll of almost 2,000 members. Some 86 per cent of respondents said that the link between teaching and research should be retained.

Professor David Wallace, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University, said the funding council's policy of transferring money from institutions with high entry standards to those with students averaging less than three Cs at A level was causing anger. "In engineering, it means switching support from accredited courses to others that do not have accreditation."

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