Two sides of one coin

December 13, 2002

In an open letter to Charles Clarke, Bernard King explains why research and teaching must stay under one roof

Dear secretary of state, Plutarch, some say, defined research as the act of going up alleys to see if they were blind. Your proposal to typecast universities into those that are and those that are not allowed to do research would lead Britain down a fatal educational blind alley.

Like it or not, Britain is now living in a knowledge age, competing in a global knowledge economy. Our future as a nation depends on having mechanisms that can generate knowledge and use it to create wealth. Universities, the creators of knowledge, and indigenous businesses, the creators of wealth, are locked in an increasingly symbiotic relationship that the state interferes with at its peril.

Businesses, large and small, are demanding graduate workforces to enable them to compete. Graduates make up 80-90 per cent of the entire staff in new industries such as biotechnology and digital media, from which much of tomorrow's wealth will come. These are not dumbed-down, second-rate graduates from non-research institutions; they come from both old and new universities, where high-quality research is intimately and indissolubly linked to high-quality teaching.

The digital entertainment market was, for example, ignored by universities ten years ago. It now boasts an annual 10-20 per cent growth. The complexity and sophistication of the computer games business demands graduate and postgraduate skills. Abertay University researchers foresaw this first and we now lead Europe in supplying knowledge - and graduates - to support the continued growth of the digital media sector.

This is not unique: research activity is what brought about Abertay degrees such as Europe's first masters degree in mechatronics, Scotland's first masters in bioinformatics, and undergraduate courses in biotechnology and forensic psychobiology.

Fortunately, in Scotland we have a funding council willing to provide pump-priming to support such research, and a government that recognises the importance of the industry-university link, as shown by this week's announcement of £45 million by the Scottish Executive for three "intermediary technology institutes".

But under your proposals, such innovation and enterprise would be severely hampered. What is worse, blocking research funding for new universities, so often the innovators, would do little to boost funding for old universities: the post-1992 sector teaches 55 per cent of all higher education students but gets just 8 per cent of the research funding.

By restricting research to an elite, you will sever the umbilical cord through which research nourishes and sustains teaching in all our universities. If teaching assessments show us anything, it is that quality ratings are highest where research is carried out. You seem to forget that no first-rate academic would work for a university that does no research, so how can we produce your "outstanding teaching universities"?

If your object is to limit spending, I understand, but hiding that behind the creation of "centres of teaching excellence" by removing research funding and research degree-awarding powers is ludicrous.

There is no cheap way to create excellence. Your proposals would condemn thousands of students to a dumbed-down educational experience, based on secondhand knowledge in a second-tier sector of teaching institutions relying on hand-me-down learning from a closed shop of wealthy research universities. You would still have "world-class" researchers, but, like all closed shops, the work would not necessarily be for the benefit of the nation.

The indivisibility of teaching and research is well recognised everywhere, except, it seems, in this country. The Magna Charta Universitatum, signed by almost 400 universities across the world, declares as a fundamental principle that "teaching and research in universities must be inseparable if (students') tuition is not to lag behind changing needs, the demands of society, and advances in scientific knowledge".

In the knowledge age, research is the lifeblood of all universities and, by extension, of the knowledge economies they support. A research-free university would be no university at all, and we all would be the poorer, both metaphorically - and literally.

Yours sincerely, Bernard King Principal of the University of Abertay, Dundee.

Bernard King is hosting a debate on why universities need to do research and teaching at www.

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