The straitjacket of forced uniformity

February 7, 1997

MUCH HAS been said recently about the diversity of British universities, but to what extent have cultural perceptions changed? As important, where is the political will to consider the issues of diversity from a financial viewpoint?

It is axiomatic that all universities should be engaged in research and scholarship. Research is intrinsic to a university and for some institutions must be the focus of activity. For others, research benefits from the experience of the lecture and seminar rooms where concepts and ideas are tested. Similarly, teaching and the curriculum benefit from being underpinned by appropriate research. The difference between institutions is in the weighting they give to each aspect.

The research assessment exercise imposes a uniformity on the system to which all institutions have to comply. To some, the exercise may diminish or shift the focus from a diverse set of institutional objectives and national needs.

A reinforcement of a particular kind of university is occurring, leading to the development of a league table of quality based on that definition. Predictably, Oxford and Cambridge will be at the top and a former college or institute of higher education at the bottom. This is fair in the context of dominant research universities but not fair in terms of the diversity of higher education institutions.

Yet, all universities are forced into making an RAE bid because funding is attached to grades. In doing that, some implicitly acquiesce to a false impression about their overall quality. The status and financial rewards from the RAE are so significant that we might suspect that some institutions may, at best, deceive themselves about their mission or, at worst, distort their philosophy in order to enter the lists.

If the top RAE achievers adopt an isolationist policy, then a reinforcement of an unacceptable higher educational culture may occur. If the purpose of higher education is to be of service to the nation, then that aspiration must rise above the concerns, defence mechanisms and protectionism of individual institutions.

We need to convert a vertical view of universities based on research into a horizontal one based on a variety of performance indicators. Excellence should be defined according to universities' stated purpose and mission. In the quality assessment of teaching, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has judged departments on their self-assessment in relation to institutional mission.

The RAE, although subject specific, does the opposite. There is the danger of enforcing a standard construction on to a diversified system and, in so doing, feeding a particular set of cultural and educational perceptions.

What can be done? We should attempt to recognise diversity of mission and to value it as a national asset. The RAE should make explicit research performance in relation to overall mission. While ensuring that the centres of excellence are adequately funded and the public purse protected, we might consider a matter of emphasis. Should the RAE primarily be a distributing mechanism or an auditing mechanism? Would there be any advantage in making a clearer distinction between its two functions?

Diversity of mission should be recognised by central government and the HEFCE as requiring a funding regime that encourages many forms of excellence. We should go out of our way nationally and internationally to praise and publicise the innovatory nature of different levels of activity.

Finally, we should move away from competition and towards collaboration. If we can persuade institutions with diverse missions to work with each other, we will enrich the sector for the benefit of the country.

Michael Scott is pro vice chancellor of De Montfort University, but writes in a personal capacity.

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