Teaching-focused 'not worthy' of university title

June 6, 2003

Higher education institutions that concentrate exclusively on teaching may not be worthy of the name university, the chair of the Commons education and skills select committee, Barry Sheerman, warned this week.

The committee is conducting an inquiry into the government's higher education white paper, and is due to publish its final report in about a month, after it takes evidence from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

Mr Sheerman told a British Medical Association conference on Monday that he would stress that research was key to all aspects of higher education and should not be separated from teaching. He said: "There is a very big query about allowing institutes to have the university title without research."

Mr Sheerman said it was important to defend the partnership of teaching and research in every area of higher education, and not just within a small number of leading universities.

In his evidence to the committee, the rector of Imperial College London, Sir Richard Sykes, said research should be concentrated in not more than five universities. But Mr Sheerman is opposed to such a high level of selectivity.

Mr Sheerman also expressed frustration with ministers who insisted that universities must strive to compete with the US, arguing that the UK's "unique relationship between research and education" in many ways put it in the lead.

The committee is angry about the timing of last week's Roberts' report on the future of the research assessment exercise. Mr Sheerman called the downgrading of 4 and 3*-rated departments "a nonsense", stressing that many 5 and 5* departments were rated 4 or 3* in the recent past.

Mr Sheerman was more positive about the government's plans to introduce top-up fees. But he accused the BMA of "living in cloud-cuckoo land" because it called for grants for students from every background in its response to the white paper.

Christopher Milroy, professor of forensic pathology at the University of Sheffield, said: "If we are going to have students faced with £100,000 for four years at medical school, what will that do to accessibility?"

When the committee started its inquiry on the white paper, members expected to focus on student finance issues. MPs now feel there is an urgent need for an extensive evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the whole UK higher education system.

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