The teaching excellence framework will do little to erode the dominant position of research in the mission of leading universities, which may divert income from higher tuition fees away from education, a senior academic has warned.
Paul Blackmore, professor of higher education at King’s College London, said that the government was “driving a new wedge between research and teaching”, with the TEF likely to stand in opposition to the research excellence framework.
However, writing in a pamphlet produced by the Higher Education Policy Institute, Professor Blackmore says this is a contest that teaching is “bound to lose”, because, while research prowess generates prestige for universities, excellent teaching does not.
Professor Blackmore – the author of a recent book on prestige in higher education – says that the metrics chosen to measure teaching quality in the TEF are unlikely to be robust enough to allow universities to base their reputations more on teaching.
He argues that, even if a robust method of judging teaching standards could be developed, it would “not necessarily guide many students’ choices”. This is because many students know that a degree from a prestigious research-intensive university is likely to get them a good job, regardless of how good the teaching is.
And, while a bad TEF rating may harm a university’s reputation, the impact is likely to be slight, in the short term at least, since prestige “tends to rise and fall relatively slowly”, Professor Blackmore writes.
He argues that research-intensive universities will ensure they do just enough in the TEF to reach the threshold for inflationary tuition fee increases.
However, this additional funding may not be directed towards further improvements in teaching standards, Professor Blackmore warns. Instead, it could be diverted towards subsidising research, as already happens with tuition fee income.
Less prestigious institutions that focus on teaching are more likely to be damaged by the government’s reforms, Professor Blackmore says, as they face additional competition from the entry of more private providers into the sector.
As a result, he warns, teaching-focused institutions may be forced to spend income from fee rises not on improving education but on “iconic and attention-grabbing developments” in order to protect their position.
A better solution, instead of further separating teaching and research, would be to link them more closely, Professor Blackmore says.
He calls for public funding for research to be predicated on an explanation of the pedagogical benefit of the work, and for public funding for teaching to require evidence that students are learning in a “research-like” way and are being taught about the latest research.
He suggests that ministers should consider creating a single funding body for teaching and research, rather than the separate organisations envisaged by the Higher Education and Research Bill, and says universities should think about basing promotions on academics’ ability to link their teaching and research activities.
Professor Blackmore said that teaching and research should not be “driven even further apart”.
“Driving a new wedge between research and teaching, as the government is doing, sets up a contest that teaching is bound to lose,” he said. “Instead, we should be linking teaching and research at all levels.”