The cost of excellence

Quality teaching, like quality research, requires funding input, say Russell Group chiefs Malcolm Grant and Wendy Piatt

March 6, 2008

The quality of teaching in our universities is a controversial topic. It has been argued in these pages that Russell Group institutions have presided over a decline in the quality of undergraduate teaching. The Secretary of State has even created a Minister for Students and recently announced that evidence from student juries has raised issues about the quality of teaching and employment prospects, accommodation, financial support, advice and guidance.

In a speech last week, Universities Secretary John Denham worried that if students did not feel that they were getting value for money, Britain would damage its reputation as a prized destination for international students. Three days later he announced the setting up of no fewer than 20 new campuses through a "university challenge" process.

It is time to take stock of what has been achieved. Certainly, the extension of higher education opportunity has placed great strains on universities. It has not been accompanied by the necessary increases in funding; indeed, the unit of resource for teaching has plummeted. The drive for research excellence has also created objectives that are more stretching for all staff, especially in research-intensive institutions. But we should not become too nostalgic for a golden age where students flourished in one-to-one tutorials and where the educational experience had a personalised warm glow. For those involved in teaching and research over the past 30 years, the process of change has been far more complex.

Every institution worth its salt is constantly working on improving the experience of its students: revising curricula and approaches to teaching, deploying IT in innovative ways and investing in facilities and teaching infrastructure. The critical drivers of change are global competition and the institutional autonomy that allows it. Russell Group universities compete globally for the best staff and students.

Student satisfaction levels may not be 100 per cent, but they are higher than levels of consumer satisfaction across the range of public services. There are no fewer than 17 centres of excellence in teaching and learning in the Russell Group. Quality Assurance Agency reports attest to robust procedures implemented at our institutions for managing quality and standards.

But let us not forget that teaching is seriously under-resourced. The Higher Education Funding Council for England teaching grant comes nowhere near reflecting the full economic costs, and under this incentive structure the major political risk is not that higher education institutions will turn their back on the widening participation agenda, but that their future expansion plans simply will not include UK undergraduates. High-quality overseas students continue to be drawn to the UK, outside the Hefce quota and contributing towards the full economic costs of their education. European Union students from 26 other nations compete for admission on equal terms with UK applicants.

This leads to the frequently hinted at dichotomy between research and teaching. Yes, there are tensions, but it would be superficial to imagine that there are two incompatible career paths. Our students work with academics who are directly engaged in research of an unprecedentedly high standard. The research assessment exercise has driven remarkable improvements in research quality since 1986. Our institutions are infinitely more alive to research than they were 30 years ago. Students are learning with distinguished international experts, and our universities are less insular and more open as a consequence.

Significantly, the National Student Survey reveals that students in subject areas with the highest RAE scores were more positive about their experience than students in departments with lower scores. Moreover, i-graduate has found that 90 per cent of international students in Russell Group universities thought that research quality was one of the most important factors in choosing a university, and 95 per cent believe that their lecturers are experts in their subject.

Ministers are right to reflect on incentives that will continue to allow British universities to thrive in global competition, but they need also to reflect soberly on the persisting funding crisis, and consider further - in that light - their priorities for the sector's future.

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