RAEs overlook higher education research and it is time for change, says Mantz Yorke
The funding councils recently launched their consultation over the future of the research assessment exercise. The series of questions that is being asked is wide- ranging. This article is concerned with a single question: how should research into higher education be treated in any future RAEs?
Higher education does not feature strongly in the way in which the various RAEs have been organised: it is either placed within the broader education unit of assessment -Jwhere research related to schools and to continuing education is to the fore - or sometimes, where teaching and learning are concerned, under the relevant subject discipline's unit of assessment. In these latter circumstances, it is by no means clear that research into teaching and learning in Subject X is valued as highly as research in Subject X itself. Indeed, some who have done research into teaching and learning have felt pressured to focus on their own particular discipline to satisfy departmental requirements to submit the strongest possible profile for research assessment.
In RAE terms, higher education seems to be at a disadvantage. Yet research into higher education is a necessary condition for its development and for countering the overstated cliche that higher education institutions are institutions of learning but not learning institutions. Research into higher education needs a status comparable to that of the various academic disciplines. One solution could be to create in the RAE a specific unit of assessment that is devoted to higher education.
This would signal that research into higher education (ranging from philosophical perspectives to the practicalities of teaching and learning) was valued on a par with that into, say, the social and economic implications of an ageing population or the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Thus research into higher education would not risk being categorised as secondary in importance.
There is, however, a broader consideration. At present there is no way in which the commitment of an institution as a whole to researching its various educational practices can be recognised through the research assessment exercise, yet this is an important determinant of general institutional quality. In a climate in which institutional quality and standards are subject to external scrutiny, it seems odd that institutions are not explicitly scrutinised in respect of what they are contributing to higher education itself -after all, the literature on quality is unanimous that an organisational commitment to the rigorous examination of process and product is essential to meet the demands of competition and the expectations of "consumers".
A unit of assessment devoted to research into higher education, which would be separate from that covering other sectors of education, could be included in future RAEs. It would focus on institutions and would act as an encouragement to them: * to look corporately at what they were or were not doing to understand and develop theory and practice relating to higher education,
* to undertake research into theory and practice
* to disseminate knowledge, understanding and practice internally and externally
* to develop themselves further as learning organisations.
Some would argue that any institution committed to improving the quality of its educational provision would subject its ideas and practices to scrutiny as a matter of course. However, it is widely perceived that the RAE has shifted institutional attention away from improving educational practice and towards obtaining the highest possible research ratings. Unless research into higher education is fully valued, policies to improve the quality of programmes will be undermined. Research and teaching are often depicted as being in opposition, as far as the attention of academics is concerned: there are surely advantages to be gained by coupling them.
A unit of assessment devoted to higher education would probably be welcomed by the Dearing-inspired Institute for Learning and Teaching, part of whose remit was seen as the commissioning of research and development in learning and teaching practices. However, the commissioning of R&D will be circumscribed by its funding. Although funding is important, much can be achieved with relatively limited resources. Despite all the pressures on them, academics are researching aspects of their practice, often with little or no backing, and are writing up the findings for journals. The problem with this fragmented activity is that it tends to be small-scale and is difficult to cumulate.
The ILT could take a broader initiative by setting up, with the sector, research into aspects of teaching and learning that are widely agreed to need more elucidation: for example, where computers may have advantages over other modes of information provision; how best to ensure that students equip themselves with the skills needed outside academe; and the relationship between assessment methods, degree classification algorithms and degree outcomes. It is likely that many academics would be interested in contributing to a broad study, provided that they could at the same time show the value of their work in the RAE. The ILT would be able to publish or commission authoritative synoptic reviews of the kind that seem to be fading from the research literature and that should act as "markers" for those who wish to develop research.
Giving higher education its own unit of assessment in the RAE would be a radical change as it would focus on the institution as a whole rather than on its component parts. It would also signal, in a way that teaching quality assessment and quality audit have been unable to do, the importance of examining critically the purposes and practices of higher education. It would be nicely paradoxical if a general improvement in course quality were to be brought about most effectively through the encouragement of research.
Mantz Yorke is professor of higher education and director of the centre for higher education development, Liverpool John Moores University.