Teaching in decline, says study

April 18, 1997

EVIDENCE that undergraduate teaching is being damaged by the powerful research culture of British universities is emerging from new studies.

Ian McNay, head of the centre for higher education management at Anglia Polytechnic University, has uncovered evidence that research is being increasingly separated from teaching in a growing number of universities. "While there is some positive gain on the postgraduate side, undergraduate programmes are being left to survive on established knowledge," said Professor McNay. He publishes the results of his research into the impact of the research assessment exercise on teaching next month.

Alan Jenkins of Oxford Brookes University said it was hard to find any incentive for academics to focus on teaching.

"Everything tells you to concentrate all your energies into research," he said. "Teaching needs to be seen to be judged worthwhile by universities. Appointing and promoting academics as a reward for excellence in teaching is the only way."

Initiatives such as the funding council's Pounds 35 million fund for the development of teaching and learning were merely tinkering, said Professor Jenkins.

Brian Fender, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, told the council's annual conference that the publication of the RAE results illustrated the dangers of research performance overshadowing that of teaching. The esteem of teaching needed to be raised through, among other measures, quality assessment ratings for teaching.

Professor Jenkins has carried out the first study looking at the impact of the RAE on the teaching of one discipline, geography, at 14 universities both new and old. "Funding and quality procedures have caused individuals, departments and institutions to prioritise research, and given that staff time and resources are limited, to neglect teaching," he said. "There are significant financial rewards for developing quality research. By contrast, doing well in the teaching quality exercise produces at best symbolic rewards."

The study showed that as 1996 approached, many universities began to behave rather like football clubs in their rush to recruit top staff before the RAE submission deadline.

"The study demonstrates that the RAE has had significant and largely negative impacts on the organisation of teaching and perhaps on aspects of teaching quality in these 14 geography departments," said Professor Jenkins. "By comparison the teaching quality assessment has made little or no impact."

Gareth Williams, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, said it could be argued that there was a correlation between good research and good teaching.

Good researchers tended to be good all-rounders and this was partially backed up by teaching and research ratings.

"The problem is that research is visible to the wider world whereas teaching is only visible to students, and this is an intrinsic difficulty made worse by the view, among academics, that teaching is a private transaction which it would be indecent to evaluate," he said.

Alan Jenkins, page 14

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