To ensure our survival, we must band together

October 11, 2002

In the aftermath of the research assessment exercise, a number of university education departments are questioning whether high-quality research is compatible with quality initial training - and whether initial training can continue to be subsidised by research income, which itself is reduced in value.

The relegation of the Institute of Education from 5* to 5 caused such a loss of potential income that initial training of 1,000 teachers was threatened. A threat by the institute to abandon initial training has now been withdrawn upon the guarantee of an extra £1 million annual grant. But its victory has reinforced the dismay of others.

So what is the future for educational research? Can research cash be spread equitably across many institutions? If not, should not only a few concentrate on research while the rest focus on teaching and training? That would seem a possibility. Indeed, it was on the agenda a quarter of a century ago, when the green paper by Shirley Williams, then education secretary, proposed three types of university: research-based, teaching-based and those focused on both. That system was rejected, but rejected policies often sit within the Treasury until the political climate is ripe for them to be moved. And is this not such a time?

In looking to the future, educational research needs to assume the following. First, the government will not solve the plight of impoverished researchers. The government is not really interested in research or evidence-based policy and practice. There are exceptions, but by and large expensive government initiatives are not noted for careful evaluation of pilot schemes or for critical scrutiny of relevant evidence.

Second, there is too much fragmented and low-level research to be useful or to attract outside funding. Because of the necessarily fragmented way in which research is institutionalised, few places can orchestrate research on a large scale and within interdisciplinary, well-funded communities.

Third, the changing shape of higher education leads to a hierarchy of institutions in terms of research funding, academic status and research students.

To respond to this situation, there is a need to review the institutional and financial basis of research. Current funding encourages competition rather than collaboration, defence of conclusions rather than openness to criticism. It makes sense to create or nurture a few powerful, well-funded regional research centres, which would be accessible to all research-active staff in the region, who would be members of and leaders of research teams and projects.

The reason for creating regional networks based on relatively few well-resourced centres is that, outside a handful of institutions, there is not the size or the range of expertise to conduct large-scale, interdisciplinary research or to create the vibrant communities of independent researchers. Funding would follow research teams, and teams would be drawn from across institutions and would come together and separate as the research agendas evolved. Training for future researchers should be focused on such teams.

Such cross-institutional funding and research training is already developing. The Economic and Social Research Council Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance is based at Oxford University's economics and education departments and at Warwick University Business School, but it is the hub of a network of researchers from a wide range of universities. And the Institute of Education, King's College London, the National Foundation for Educational Research and the Oxford department of educational studies are pioneering a shared programme of research training with specialist options and internship that they could not produce individually.

Unless research funding and organisation is reviewed, the financial rewards for top-graded research (compared with the low rewards for high-quality initial training) will drive some institutions to quit initial training. This would be disastrous for teacher training and for educational research. We need a mechanism that avoids such a situation.

But also, in terms of their own self-preservation, educationists should remember the Chicago School of Education. That great institution, the inheritor of John Dewey's Laboratory School, abandoned teacher education to pursue research. But in joining the School of Social Science, it encountered a research tradition that could not appreciate the distinctive nature of educational research. Bereft of friends in school and academia, the School of Education was forced to close. To those who want to gain their 5* by abandoning initial training, I say "remember Chicago".

Richard Pring is professor of educational studies at the University of Oxford.


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